In the country where I grew up, the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ yearly visit is a hugely popular celebration, rich in rituals and designed to make children happy. Three years ago, the celebration came to New York, where I now live. It seemed only logical to expose my half-Dutch children to this cherished tradition.

A large group of Dutch parents and children gathered at New York’s The Netherland Club. While awaiting the arrival of “the holy man,” they all happily sang the traditional songs about “the bishop,” who, as it is told, hails from Spain and makes his yearly trek to the Netherlands on his white horse with his servants. The lyrics: “His servant stood laughing and told us,” “Those who are sweet will get candy, the others will get spanked.” And: “Even though I am black as soot, I mean pretty well.”

All had been peaceful at the Netherland Club until a number of black-faced minstrels came out of nowhere, ramming on doors and throwing candy into the room. My three year old ran out of the room in utter fear, settling in a hiding spot, somewhere under a table in a closet with the doors closed. The show of well-intentioned fun by a bunch of guys in funny suits, donning afro-wigs and red painted lips was completely lost on my son, forcing me to reconsider the meaning and symbols of the tradition.

The celebration of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, by the Dutch and a couple other low countries goes back to the Middle Ages. In fact, it is this long-bearded holy man, the patron saint of children, who was the model for Santa Claus. Over time it has resulted in a feast where adults dress up as the bishop and as his assistants, his Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), to surprise children with gifts, or exchange poems and small presents among adults. But the rituals that accompany the tradition have evolved over time. While children have always been led to believe that the Saint truly exists, in the not too distant past young children were also warned that their bad behavior could result in being dumped in a burlap bag to be hauled off to Spain. Poor manners could also lead to punishment by a rod made of branches.

From the school teacher's book: Saint Nicholas and his servant putting naughty children in a sack © Schenkman | [Public Domain]
From the school teacher’s book: Saint Nicholas and his servant putting naughty children in a sack © Schenkman | [Public Domain]
Once upon a time, the Saint had a Moorish servant, a Muslim from Arab or African descent, but in the 19th century, a popular book by a Dutch schoolteacher gave the servant stronger black characteristics; an ink black face, the afro wig, thick red lips and golden earrings. It was and is a typical caricature of an African slave, a stereotype of a black person and, combined with the white bishop, a symbolization of the white master and his black servant. More lore was added along the way. The Saint also suddenly ended up with his own private steamer, which he used for his yearly travel to the lowlands.

The saint himself, his entourage and his paraphernalia, obviously are elements of a social construct. As far as is known, Nicholas, the man, originally lived in Myra, what is currently Turkey, and never during his life came close to Spain. The development of the myth reflects moments in the social and cultural history of the narrators of the story; from the colonial slave trading past of the Dutch empire to the invention of steamships.

More recently, Zwarte Piet supposedly has also evolved from being plain dumb and barely able to speak a full sentence, to being quite an accomplished events manager who no longer kidnaps naughty kids or hits them with rods. If this sounds upsetting, strange traditions are in no way unique to the Dutch.

One should not underestimate the alarming activities of for example the explorer Christopher Columbus, whose arrival is celebrated on the official holiday of Columbus Day. As it turned out, the man was strongly in favor of slavery and exploitation, and set off the extermination of the indigenous people of the Americas. The celebration of the even bigger event of Thanksgiving becomes mainly peculiar when asked what is really being celebrated.

The Dutch are in good Caucasian company when it comes to the need to rethink past behavior. The conservative American political commentator Charles Krauthammer described the decade long discussion about changing the name of Washington’s football team, the Redskins. Even the president has weighed in (he would change the name) and, in a notable bi-partisan moment, Krauthammer agreed with Obama:

Why? Simple decency. I wouldn’t want to use a word that defines a people – living or dead, offended or not – in a most demeaning way. It’s a question not of who or how many had their feelings hurt, but of whether you want to associate yourself with a word that, for whatever historical reason having nothing to do with you, carries inherently derogatory connotations.

In the Netherlands, the Black Pete controversy is emerging with a new urgency. This year, a team of researchers for the United Nations got involved after they received a complaint about the racist character of the celebration and decided to look into the matter. Many Dutch are up in arms, and have a hard time with this “foreign interference.” In addition to pro Zwarte Piet online petitions, protests are becoming quite aggressive, most disturbingly in the form of intimidations at the address of the researchers.

While the discussion about dressing up in blackface is an annually returning ritual, this year’s reaction by the Dutch politicians about all the commotion seems rather representative of the public’s reaction in general. Prime Minister Rutte does not consider Sinterklaas and his black underlings an issue for discussion for his government, nor do the members of Parliament want to spend time on the matter. “Zwarte Piet turns out to be black, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” says the prime minister. As one commenter in the blogosphere said, “Just invite President Obama over for dinner on the 5th of December. But we all know they ain’t gonna do that; they ain’t that dumb.” The government’s answers to the researchers at the United Nations have been another sign that Dutch leaders are not able to relate to the core of the issue. The government report says:

The Dutch government sees the Sinterlaas festival as a traditional children’s festival. The focus is on Sinterklaas as a figure who hands out presents, and the festival is celebrated in many different ways by different people. The government is aware that people’s opinions about this festival differ. The role played by “Black Pete’ is sometimes a subject for public debate. … People who feel they have been discriminated against can report this to their local anti-discrimination-office. Most of these reports concern discrimination on the grounds of race.

The fact that also this year the majority of the Dutch did not see the need to make changes, gives a fair reflection of the state of affairs of racial sensitivities. The majority of Dutch will explain that they are in favor of egalitarian values and that any perceived racism in their national custom is unintentional. After all, they will explain that the soot on the face of the servants happens to be there because they deliver the Saint’s presents by lowering themselves through dirty chimneys. Which doesn’t clarify the afro-wig, nor the lack of soot on their clothing. Then, they explain, it is all harmless fun anyway, because Dutch children do not necessarily make the connection between Zwarte Piet and the negative representation of a black person in the form of a racial stereotype.

Dressing up as a caricature of a dark-skinned slave in a country that has a history of slave trade and colonization is tolerated. Is it subconscious racism, a state of cognitive dissonance? If the schoolteacher in the 19th century would have drawn the caricature of a greedy Jewish boy with a large hook-nose and a violin, or an unwashed Gypsie, in rags and with golden teeth, would those stereotypes also be accepted?

A coloring book page: Saint Nicholas instructing Black Pete to drop presents in the chimney ©
A coloring book page: Saint Nicholas instructing Black Pete to drop presents in the chimney ©

I have learned that it is not easy to explain the Dutch tradition outside the Netherlands, especially in my kids’ classrooms. Their classes truly reflect the diverse community that New York City’s borough of Queens is, with children from all over the world. The teachers invite parents to share the stories and rituals of their specific traditions, especially when it concerns major celebrations. Together with my Mexican friend, who married a Dutch man, we baked piles of pepernoten (tiny ginger cookies), showed a puppet of Sinterklaas and brought images to color. We left the black puppets home and never mentioned that the very nice man’s helpers are his servants, who are as black as soot, don’t speak in sentences and are generally kinda dumb.

The handing down of cultural tradition from one generation to the next is crucial for the existence and survival of communities. But when the values of the cultural tradition do not or no longer represent all members of the community, or strongly differ from values of other befriended communities, something is off. I strongly believe that a change would do Sinterklaas good. To my surprise and disturbance, this isn’t obvious in the Netherlands.