Staring the middle of November a very special atmosphere reigns in Holland – expectations of a holiday among all the children and all those people who have children – the upcoming birthday of St.Nicolas. On the night of December 5-6 all children leave their shoes in the kitchen for the beloved Sinterklaas (St.Nicolas) to leave presents for the. Kids also leave a carrot and some water for the horse that helps St.Nicolas to bring presents. This old tradition has survived religious wars and disputes, and even the austere Protestants – who do not recognize any saints – let their children believe in St.Nicolas, a friend of kids and sailors, who brings sweets and tangerines on a ship in order to give them out to children on his own birthday.
The most traditional Dutchmen congratulate their children not on Christmas (this day is reserved for prayer and not for presents) and not on the New Year (when fireworks and joy are acceptable, but when there is no tradition to give presents), but instead give presents to their children “on behalf” of the good old St.Nicolas. It is no surprise that the consumer society uses this tradition not only as a pretext for buying and selling tons of sweets, chocolate letters, toys and other innumerable things for children, but also as a day for holding festive activities, street parades and other popular assemblies. Bearded St.Nicolases in red Egyptian clothes are to be found standing in all the shop windows, attracting children and parents alike (we, too, can imagine this, because in Russia it’s the same with Daddy Frost ahead of the New Year’s Day). There is hardly any problem with this, except for the fact that modern world has ruthlessly commercialized this good old tradition and popular festivity (one of the most notorious expressions of this is the American image used by Coca-Cola, a hybrid of Dutch St.Nicolas and English Santa Klaus, an old man in dwarf-like clothes, who hardly looks like an archbishop, which he was).
The trouble is not in Sinterklaas, but his assistant, the so called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Nowadays the sweet fairy tale of St.Nicolas bringing the presents, which for years was described in many books, cartoons and tales, says that in order for the saint to bring cookies to every child, he needs assistants (“servants”, they are called), Black Petes. Black Pete is presented as a small Black boy, dressed in a beret and a costume of the old times, which is a clear reference to the Moors in mandilions of the XVIIIth century. (Russian Tsar Peter the Great was also fond of them and brought one to Russia – which incidentally gave rise to a Russian family of Hannibals, who gave us Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin).
And it was these Black Petes that progressive minded people were fighting against in recent years. Last year even the UN experts found traces of racism in this cult of black servants to the good saint.
The very title of “Black servants” (connected to servitude and slavery) and their role of little Black assistants to the big White man is considered to be part of the tradition of slave trade in the history of Holland, formerly a great colonial power.
A whole wave of rage followed in the wake of these criticism of old traditions (and, of course, the Russian mass media sided with the White traditionalists in this debate and even with the right wing politician Geert Wilders – as was the case in the report made by Russia’s Channel One on November 1, 2013).
In spite of the fact that a decision was adopted by the state to maintain “political correctness” and not to make up children as Africans, the cult of Black Pete would not disappear.
Dozens, maybe even hundreds of children dressed as “Black Petes” paraded the streets of an old town of Gouda – they wore black make-up and wigs, which imitated Black Africans. In the midst of this feast of fake Africans, the very real present-day Dutch Africans came out in protest shouting that “Black Pete is racist!” Reports of this event gave me very mixed emotions: on the one hand I felt sorry for the small children, who came dressed up as Black Petes, not expecting anything bad to happen. On the other hand, I could understand the outrage of those who live in Holland being real Black people and whose feelings are hurt by this masquerade.
Holland, same as many other former colonial powers, has a large number of Black people. Most of them are descendants of those, who were brought to slave markets in the lower holds of ships. The Dutch, unfortunately, contributed in some large way to the slave trade and as a result of that population of whole countries has changed – indigenous population of Surinam, for example, was exterminated and the country was repopulated by slaves brought in from Africa. Many of these people now also live in Holland.
Slavery, slave trade, the use of “funny Moors” as dressed up servants – all of this is hardly funny and nice. This “tradition”, sensitive to people who know their own history, should have been abandoned a long time ago. In any event, it is not even such an “ancient” tradition… And just a few centuries ago Europeans had a different vision of this – St.Nicloas was bringing presents only for the good children, while for the bad children there was corporal punishment and threat of ending up in the sack of a “Black man”, the devil. Thus, in Austria they still portray not a “Moor”, but a black devil next to St.Nicolas – and this is even an older tradition!
It is obvious that this tradition – using the Devil for pedagogical purposes (scaring children ahead of a holiday was a sort of an annual “Judgment day” for naughty kids) – was not supported by everyone, especially by the church and protestants. Thus various adulterations were invented – in some places the devil was replaced by chimney sweeper (also a kind of black man), but in XVIIIth century Holland an image of a “black slave” was responding to that. Christian bigotry was just replacing the devil with an African.
It’s high time that this tradition is now to be considered a vice, not a nice fairy tale. Bringing presents can be done without some form of sweetened racism – St.Nicolas or Santa Klaus or some other fairy tale character can manage to bring sweets without any discrimination involved and without masking bad ideas, which already had brought a lot of evil into this world.
by Stefania Kulayeva
Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is Racist video channel