The best and worst of Sinterklaas


On the 16th of November, a man named Sinterklaas arrived in the Netherlands. And with his arrival came the excitement and the heart sinking dread for any Dutch person living abroad, including me.

The excitement because the 5th of December – or ‘Sinterklaas Eve’- is genuinely my favourite day of the year, but the dread is twofold, firstly there is the dread because usually I will miss all of the build up and no matter how kindly English people will say ‘Happy Sinterklaas!’, it just doesn’t do the trick. Because you don’t wish someone ‘Happy Sinterklaas’, like you do with Christmas. It’d be like sending someone a ‘Pancake Day Card’ or wishing someone a ‘Royal Christmas’. And the second part of the dread comes when a non-Dutch person decides to research the holiday and uncovers something unbelievable but inevitable: Zwarte Piet.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the tradition of Sinterklaas, the story is as follows:
Sinterklaas lives in Madrid together with his Zwarte Pieten. In mid-November he travels to the Netherlands on his steamboat with his helpers and for 3 weeks kids put their shoe by the chimney/radiator/doorway/modern chimney equivalent, sing a song for Sinterklaas and leave a carrot for Amerigo; Sinterklaas’ horse (yes, he has a name, no it doesn’t mean anything). If there are small children in your family, the holiday will pan out something like this: On the eve of the 5th of December – which is not a public holiday, so it really is just about that cold magical evening – everyone comes together and sings Sinterklaas songs. At some point in the evening there is a loud, forceful knock on the door. Everyone freezes for a second – did anyone else hear that? Then there is a rising excitement as everyone runs to open the door. And there, on the doorstep, is a big bag of presents. Zwarte Piet has visited to drop the presents off! Zwarte Piet was here, mere seconds ago! Usually dad/granddad/mom/uncle/auntie will come up behind a few seconds later, expressing their grief at having ‘just missed’ the exciting visit. Although if your family is really clever they make sure that they’ve arranged an exchange with the neighbours where the neighbour knocks on your door and they knock on the neighbour’s, to cover their tracks. If the neighbour gets caught, they can just say ‘I came out because I think I just saw Zwarte Piet!’ Foolproof.

The bag full of presents then gets hauled in and all the presents are unwrapped and you sing a thank you song for Sinterklaas. Once presents have been played with, and hot chocolate has been drunk, it’s time to go to bed, sleepy from all that pent up excitement. The next day you go to school like any other day, with your new toys and find out what your friends got this year.

For children there is also the whole accompanying story of Sinterklaas and the worry whether you’ve been naughty or nice. Naughty kids get put in Sinterklaas’ sack and taken back to Spain. Much more terrifying than a lump of coal! Although in retrospect it sounds pretty awesome to live with Sinterklaas in Spain…
On top of that excitement, the Dutch create a completely new story every year to accompany the arrival of Sinterklaas’ boat into a Dutch harbour. Last year there was a whole story about how Sinterklaas had run out of time and had taken a lot of money with him to the Netherlands to do some last minute shopping for presents, but one of the Zwarte Pieten made a mistake and accidentally lost a few of the bags of money. This was used as an explanation as to why this year, you may not receive as many presents as last year. It was a clever way to give parents a financial break in the current recession. Additionally they circulated a bunch of stickers that parents could secretly stick on their euro coins to mark the coins as Sinterklaas’ money. Kids were told if they found one of these, they should put it in their shoe to return it to Sint, and they’d be rewarded with candy. As you can tell; all kinds of moral lessons were learnt, and a whole nation conspired to make this story seem as real as possible. For this reason, even though no one in my family still ‘believes’ in Sinterklaas, we all still try to watch his welcome parade. He makes his way through a different city every year, much like the Dutch monarch does on their birthday. Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten talk to kids, look at the local displays that have been put up for them and talk to the mayor. A lot of waving and smiling and kids singing and Zwarte Pieten handing candy to everyone around.

If there are no small children in your family, or you celebrate Sinterklaas Eve with friends, the tradition changes. What happens instead is that everyone draws a name out of a hat several weeks before Sinterklaas Eve and the person whose name you draw is your ‘surprise’. This means that you will need to buy this person a present and then you will need to ‘create’ something to hide the present in and/or accompany the present. I’ve put ‘create’ in inverted commas because it’s not necessarily the right word. It’s an arts and crafts, DIY kind of deal, no one expects a masterpiece. In Dutch there is  a verb for this kind of arts and crafts: ‘knutselen’. It hints at the fact that it’s a clumsy affair. Popular materials for making your surprise are cereal boxes, empty toilet rolls and papier mâché. Knowing a decent bit of papier mâché is vital in the Netherlands. The thing you make is either a) related to the person you’re making it for, b) related to the gift you’ve bought or c) related to neither but is either a prank or generally Sinterklaas-y. No one appreciates option C, it is really reserved for when Sinterklaas is celebrated in the office or classroom and you have no idea what to do and/or you don’t like the person who is ‘your surprise’. Every year when we celebrated Sinterklaas in high school, there’d be several boys who would gift-wrap a cardboard box, inside of which they’d hide a bucket full of disgusting sludge, inside of which they’d hide the present. The person receiving the surprise would have to reach into the sludge to get to their gift. Ha dee bloody ha. Those years taught me that most teenage boys don’t understand the spirit of Sinterklaas. Your craftsmanship (or ‘knutselwerk’) is accompanied by a poem. This is the bit where I usually get interrupted by a Brit, to ask me what the hell is wrong with the Dutch and how much spare time we have. Again ‘poem’ is not the right word. Poem suggests a rather serious matter, a literary work. However, think of it more as a lymerick, a rhyming couplet, something light hearted. The poem serves as an explanation of the thing you’ve crafted, because sometimes the eyes you’ve glued onto a balloon don’t immediately make it obvious what it is supposed to be. The poem sort of serves to tie-in the person you’ve made your surprise for, the thing you’ve made, and the present you’ve bought. Alternatively you’ve pulled a poem from the internet (there are many ‘Sinterklaas poem generators’ out there) which is generically about Sinterklaas. These latter poems often accompany the sludge buckets described earlier (seriously internet-poem-sludge-bucket people, you are the worst). These three things, the present, the crafted item, and the poem together form the ‘surprise’(pronounced: sur-pree-zeh).

For my family (and as far as I can gather, most other families too) part of the tradition is that on the evening of Sinterklaas you have a quick and early dinner, because EVERYONE still has to finish their surprise, write or revise their poem and/or wrap their presents. The person who is most organised will impatiently shout at the bottom of the stairs ‘Hurry up! What’s taking so long?!’, to which the answer is always an anxiously shouted ‘Don’t come in here!! I’m still working on my surprise!!’ Once everyone has washed the glue and glitter off their hands and faces, you gather in a room and all the surprises are carried in, sometimes covered with sheets to keep up the suspense. Sinterklaas Eve is full of this suspense, whilst the surprises enter the room, there is a hushed ‘I wonder which one is mine’ excitement. Once everyone’s sat down, the reading of the poems, unwrapping of the surprises and reveal of the presents can start.

To give you an idea; last year I celebrated Sinterklaas with my family for the first time in 5 years and my mum had made a surprise for me. She, knowing I love dinosaurs, and gathering from my wish-list that I needed a new purse, had hand-sewn me a dinosaur (because sewing is my mother’s weapon of choice for Sinterklaas, the way my dad is brilliant at poems* and I’m a big fan of balloons with faces), and bought me a bright green leather purse. In the poem she described that it was time for a new purse and that dear Sinterklaas had found me one of ‘real dinosaur leather’. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet usually feature heavily in the poems, along the lines of ‘Sinterklaas had noticed that so and so needed this thing, so he sent Zwarte Piet out to investigate, etc. etc.’ That hand-sewn dinosaur (with very fetching eyelashes) now proudly sits on top of my bookcase. Surprises are usually kept around for a week or so, before they get binned. Very few surprises can stand the test of time like my dinosaur.

The Dutch ‘surprise’ tradition works to make sure that the actual gift isn’t that important. It’s about getting together. Whilst you read out the poem, everything is about you for a little bit, but not with the added pressure of having to ‘perform’ at all. It’s just that everyone is curious. We can all laugh at the little jokes and we can all smile at the genuinely wonderful poems. And everyone can enjoy what’s been made, everyone is included in the whole process, whether you gave the surprise, made it, or are just observing. It’s an evening where you genuinely feel connected to the people around you and it is almost impossible to feel left out or alienated. And it’s only 1 evening, not 3 days of forced family time, which makes it a lot easier to be pleasant to each other without having to resort to drinking first thing in the morning (looking at your British Christmas!).

That is the reason I love Sinterklaas. Because although I don’t believe in the story of Sinterklaas anymore, I still get butterflies in my stomach, that incredible anticipation to see what my surprise is and who made it for me. One year it might be my mum, the next it will be my sister, each year a different member of my family will spend a few weeks trying to create something just for me and I get to spend time thinking and working on something for them. And that is wonderful.

But Sinterklaas comes with added baggage. Because I haven’t spent much time talking about Zwarte Piet yet; Sinterklaas’ trusty friend and helper. He is fun-loving, acrobatic, and has a specific job, as specified by the pre-fix attached to his name (there’s a ‘show the way’ Piet who guides the ship to the correct harbour, a ‘presents Piet’ who ensures all the right presents get to all the right kids, etc). He is, like Sinterklaas, the friend of every child. Literally translated, his name means ‘Black Pete’. And the reason he’s controversial, is because this is  Zwarte Piet:

Zwarte Piet

I’m not going to excuse it, I won’t defend it; Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature.

Now the Dutch have many issues with racism, but the fact that black face like this is still OK and part of a family celebration, is not because all Dutch people are racist. Even though I understand why it looks that way.

I cannot justify Zwarte Piet, I can only explain what Zwarte Piet means to a Dutch person.

When I was little, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were clearly in the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. Like Santa and his elves to a child aren’t ‘an old man and a bunch of dressed up dwarves’, he is ‘Santa’ and the elves are fairy tale figures. As a kid, I did not for one second confuse Zwarte Piet for a black person, or vice versa. The black on his face is black paint, I knew that at the time. The story that is sometimes told is that the black paint is soot from the chimney through which Zwarte Piet travels to deliver the presents, but I don’t think anyone really believes that. Zwarte Piet had face paint and colourful clothes, for exactly the same reason that elves mainly wear green, are short and all wear hats. As a toddler I dressed up as Zwarte Piet. In many stores, around Sinterklaas time, you can buy little face paint kits to paint your kids’ faces like Zwarte Piet. Thousands of children are blacked up by their parents every year. When you think about that, you must realise that there isn’t a single inkling within Dutch people that this might be wrong. No one with doubt in their heart about this tradition would be comfortable to give their toddler blackface.

This is the reason that I never considered the problematic nature of Zwarte Piet, because no one seemed to be thinking about it. Zwarte Piet was just a fond childhood memory that is unbreakably linked to my favourite holiday of the year.

And then I moved to the UK and mentioned being sad about missing out on Sinterklaas for the first time ever. A friend did some research so that they could cheer me up with Sinterklaas-y things, and in the process they found out about Zwarte Piet. And understandably, they were flabbergasted and asked ‘Who the hell is that blacked up dude?’

So I tried to explain, I laughed it off at first saying ‘oh no, you’ve got it all wrong! He is just a mythical creature!’ and using the lie I didn’t ever believe myself, but suddenly understood where it had come from: ‘he is just black from the soot of the chimney’.  And the more people found out, the more they had to conclude that this was definitely racist. And the more they came to that conclusion, the more I had to concede that; yes, this is probably – if not definitely – racist. But it was -and still is- very very hard to concede, and I resented it. It is hard to look at one of your fondest childhood memories and conclude that a key part of it is a racist construct.

May I just state that I am not equipped to discuss racism. I am white to the translucent and  I’ve definitely been handed a more privileged hand of cards than many. For this reason I’m not hugely comfortable with bringing up the issue of Zwarte Piet. But a few months ago Verene Shepherd, who heads a UN advisory group of experts of people of African descent, called for an investigation into Zwarte Piet, to find out if this tradition is racist or not. On the back of this I was asked to sign several petitions to state that I thought Zwarte Piet was not racist and the UN should stay out of it. On many Facebook groups people wrote passionate pleas for both sides of the story, though mainly the side of ‘let’s keep this tradition in tact’.

An issue with Shepherd’s letter to the Dutch government, calling for the investigation, is that it is written by someone who grew up in Jamaica and has never lived in the Netherlands. The letter is written based on the same response my English friends had when they found out about Zwarte Piet. The same incredulity that something like this exists. It doesn’t negate the deep routed emotional attachment to this holiday. When finding out about Zwarte Piet, you don’t normally find out about the family traditions, the arrival parade, the stories that are created and enacted by an entire country. And so finding out about Zwarte Piet makes it easy to conclude that it is racist. But you have to see both sides to understand why the Dutch get so furious when someone tries to condemn the Sinterklaas tradition.

And again, I am not trying to excuse Zwarte Piet. I am not blind, I can see that although Sinterklaas signifies the ‘wise, powerful, respected’, Zwarte Piet inhabits the realm of the physical, he is silly, a jester, makes mistakes, does all of the hard work for Sinterklaas and is dressed in the exact way slaves all over the world were  depicted for centuries. There is no denying that Zwarte Piet is the Minstrel tradition of The Netherlands.

It’s clear that  the argument of ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’, cannot be anything but highly emotive. After all, I am not the only person who has issues conceding that Zwarte Piet is troublesome at the least. The black community in the Netherlands has been calling for a debate around Zwarte Piet for many years. A few years ago the team that organises the yearly Sinterklaas parade decided to try and make a change by creating a story in which the steamboat had sailed through the rainbow, and therefore some of the Pieten had turned yellow, purple, green, blue and red. The production company received a huge quantity of complaints. The main argument being ‘why change an old, Dutch tradition?’ Which is not a very strong argument, because traditions can and do change. Sinterklaas started changing when they introduced a policy, that states that Zwarte Piet is no longer allowed to be characterised as Sinterklaas’ helper or subordinate. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet have to be equals, they are friends and not employer and slave employee. And after the UN investigation this year, it was ruled that Zwarte Piet was no longer allowed to wear golden hoop earrings, and that there should be more diversity in the black wigs and costumes that he wears, not just the black curly ‘afro’ wigs that are currently used. The tradition is changing, albeit slowly.

Do I think Zwarte Piet is racist? Almost definitely. Do I think Dutch people love the character of Zwarte Piet because he is racist? No, absolutely not. But I dislike the character of Zwarte Piet, thanks to that character I cannot publicly be proud and happy about this wonderful Dutch tradition, the one where families and friends get together and make each other laugh and show their love. Which is also why I’ve found it difficult to write this article, because I was worried that it might be perceived as a defence of Zwarte Piet. However, in many discussions I’ve had or read I felt that what is missing is a description of what Sinterklaas Eve means to the Dutch. Hopefully what I achieves with this article is some insight that there is more to Sinterklaas Eve than Zwarte Piet.

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2 responses to “The best and worst of Sinterklaas

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