I must be racist because I celebrate Sinterklaas and Black Peter

On the eve of December 5th (this is not an official holiday), Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas visits children in the Netherlands and Belgium to bring them presents. At night the children will put their shoe next to the fireplace or window and sing songs to Sinterklaas before going to bed hoping to a present filled shoe in the next morning. Often children will also leave a carrot in the shoe for the horse of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is the biggest celebration of the year in the Netherlands, bigger than Christmas. Just as Santa Claus has elves that help him out, Sinterklaas has helpers to. These helpers are called Black Peter or Zwarte Piet. This character is often perceived as offensive and racist beyond the Dutch boarders (including former Dutch colonies and the Dutch Antilles).
Of course I will defend the practice of Sinterklaas celebration. I grew up with it and I see it as a stand alone event. Also, it is one of the few celebration or traditions left in the Netherlands that the Dutch can claim as typical Dutch, together with Queensday. This does not mean that I am not aware of the aversion of many foreigners of the character Black Peter, in particular those from English speaking countries. The picture of character Black Peter is not that black and white. Let me try to put into context.

Slavery in the Netherlands was illegal, as this was considered not in line with good Christian moral standards. This did not mean that oversees colonies didn’t have slaves. In contrary, the Dutch held a strong position in slavery. In the Dutch colonies slavery was banned rather late in comparison to most other European nations. In most colonies slavery was banned in 1863, although the slaves weren’t fully repatriated into society for several more year. A peculier moment in Dutch history was that slave owners were given compensation (about 300 guilders per slave) for lost property. The last place slavery was banned in Dutch controlled regions was in Sumbawa in 1910. Of course, the Dutch were also responsible for about 5% of the transatlantic slave trade. Overall, this is not a part of Dutch history to be proud of and I am saddened that this is not properly thought in Dutch schools.

That bring us to the origin of the character Black Peter. It is easy to just see Black Peter as a stand alone character who is a dispensable entity in the Sinterklaas celebration. For today’s person aware of the transatlantic slave-trade (not to be mixed up with slavery as this still exist today), he will instantaneously connect the transatlantic slave-trade, the role of the Dutch in this, and Black Peter. In short, Black Peter must be a representation of a slave and therefore Sinterklaas celebration must be a racist tradition. Simple, black (Peter) and white (Sinterklaas). Is this assumption, fed by in gut-feelings, correct?

To be able to answer this question, we have to understand the history of the character of Black Peter? What is the origin of Sinterklaas (or Saint Nicolas) celebration? Parellels have been drwan between Sinterklaas and the Germanic god Odin (or Wodan). Upon Christianization of the Germanic regions, the worshipping of the god Odin and his black ravens were incorporated into the Christian believe system in the Germanic regions. This would be supported by the fact that Saint Nicolas was one of the mots important saints in Christianity for many centuries. Although this is largely a theory, it is a practice commonly used to subdue the conquered people into believing the new religion; the incorporation of pagan symbols into the new religion, such as the wedding rings most Christians use today as proof of their marriage.

The current Sinterklaas is a Turkish bishop who lives in Spain with his helpers, the Black Peters. Each Black Peter is highly specialized and indispensable. Sinterklaas keeps a log of all the children and those children that are good will get presents on the eve of December 5th. You might see some similarities with the American Santa Claus, but I will come back to this later. Why is Sinterklaas a Turkish bishop living in Spain and why do Dutch people celebrate this on the eve of December 5th. December 6th is the name day of Saint Nicholas (280-342), patron saint of children, sailors, . Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in what is present-day Turkey. Centuries after his death his relics were transferred to Bari (current day Italy). At one point Bari was part of the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon until the 18th century. Some parts of Germany, Austria and Switzerland also celebrate a variant of Sinterklaas, but they celebrate it on the actual name day: December 6th. The people of the Low Countries celebrate it on the eve, similar to some countries celebrating Christmas on the eve of December 24th, rather than December 25th. These historical events could explain the use of Spain and Turkish bishop in the Sinterklaas tradition. It is also believed that his placement in Spain explains why he uses a (steam)boat to arrive a few weeks before December 5th.

Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colorful Moorish dresses. These dresses are very similar to the dresses worn by the Spanish soldiers during the 80 year between the Spanish king and rebelion in the 17 provinces of the Low Countries. A remnant of Dutch mocking of the Spaniards still exist in the Dutch anthem: ‘de koning van Hispanje heb ik altijd geëerd’ = “the king of Spain I have always honored”. This ultimately led to the independence of the Dutch Republic, the first protest country. Whereas at first all Christian celebrations were prohibited, the rulers were forced to allow private celebrations, including Sinterklaas. The mischievous helpers are the contemporary notorious Black Peters. Part of the Sinterklaas celebration was to award good behavior and punish the bad. The common colors to be used to identify good is white, whereas bad or evil is associated with the color black. Sinterklaas was obviously the good guy, whereas Black Peter represented the bad (or evil). At least that is the prevalent theory of the origin of Black Peter and the origin of his wardrobe.

By the mid 1800s Sinterklaas had no helper, but was accompanied by the devil. But in 1850 a book by the school teacher Jan Schenkman, named “Saint Nicholas and his Helper”, changed the course of the Sinterklaas celebration. This major overhaul has been modified many times into the celebration we know today. This was the first time Sinterklaas came by steamboat and that he has a helper, which replaced the devil. This helper was alone and black, the color of bad/evil. After the liberation in World War II in 1945, the Canadian liberators organized a huge Sinterklaas celebration with many Black Peters. These numbers stuck, as well as the name Black Peter.
The mischievous behavior of the Black Peter also remained, but he gained highly specialized skills, unique to each individual Black Peter. Controvery is the Netherlands is slowly growing about the appearance of Black Peter, but at the most people do not see Black Peter as a racist character, but rather as a playful, happy and generous helper of Sinterklaas.

Does this mean that racism doesn’t exist in the Netherlands or Belgium. Of course it does. A more appropriate question would be: name one place where racism doesn’t exist? The far right is gaining more and more ground on the establishment. Racial tensions between the Moroccan and Turkish people (who are largely Muslim) and the white indigenous population (or native if that is less offensive) (who are largely Christian) after the murders of Theo van Gogh (2006) and Pim Fortuyn (2002) were undeniable. Having a Moroccan or Turkish looking last name doesn’t help you at job applications and you are more likely to be in contact with the police. Issues eerily similar to that of the afro-American populations in the US.

So what about Santa Claus? New York was founded by settlers of the Dutch Republic and the Dutch introduced varies traditions and vocabulary into US society. Just think of the word “cookie”, which is derived from the Dutch word ‘koekje’. Santa Claus is a modification of Sinterklaas, where he changed his horse for a sledge with flying reindeers, he moved from Spain to the North Pole and he replaced his Black Peter helpers with elves. The elves work in a workshop in close quarters at the North Pole.

This year (2011), Sinterklaas celebrations were cancelled in Vancouver, Canada. For the past 25 years Sinterklaas was celebrated with Black Peters, but this year Black Peters were deemed offensive and racist by the local authorities. For the local Dutch continency the solution was easy. There can be no Sinterklaas celebration without Black Peters, so they cancelled the whole celebration. Leaving sad children in the wake. This only highlights the vastly different perspectives of what Sinterklaas is between the local Canadians and the expatriate Dutch community.

By stating that the character Black Peter is racist creates an instantaneous dichotomy. You either agree with the statement and are considered socially correct. Or you disagree and you are a racist yourself (or this clearly insinuated). This does not allow for a civil discussion about the character Black Peter, its history, its social position and its local perception and perception abroad. Raising objections to Sinterklaas celebration in the US for instance, would make sense. A different country that is trying to get grips with its own racist history and the remnant of it. But it is for a foreigner, who does not speak Dutch or understand Dutch society, to dictate what is a morally correct national celebration of any other country?
As Dutch society changes, Sinterklaas celebration will change as well. I can imagine a moment when Black Peter’s appearance has changed so much it does not remind people of the transatlantic slavetrade/slavery. But at the same time, I would not be surprised that people would still be offended by this future Black Peter because Black Peter’s history has already been tainted by the projected association with the transatlantic slavetrade/slavery. I can only see a no-win situation with those people who call Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet celebration racist. So, I must be a racist because I see no reason to change the current Dutch Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet celeberation.

Sources (and sources therein and therein):

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