Putting Stupid Traditions To Bed: Black Face & Zwarte Piet

Sinterklaas and Black Pete, Dutch black face
Some Dutchmen missing the point.

Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet

Every year on December the 5th, Dutch men and women the world over come together to celebrate one their oldest traditions, the Sinterklaas Christmas parade.

Sinterklaas is a Dutch Santa Claus figure inspired by an eccentric adaptation of the Greek bishop, Saint Nicholas from the year 270.

The festival for Sinterklaas is quite typical of most Western Christmas traditions, Sinterklaas is a larger than life white bearded character who comes baring gifts. Cheer is plenty.

Quite similar in most respects really… except for one glaringly obvious, atypical difference. A difference so stark that even the plainly un-ironic even the Dutch can’t miss it. The difference is found between the role of Santa’s little helpers.

Put The Stupid Tradition To Bed

Rather than the elves we typically associate with Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is ‘helped‘ by a crew of Zwarte Piet. A crew of ‘soot covered children’ who are unseemingly and conveniently conditioned to a heavier dose of ‘servitude’ than their elvish comrades. An altogether narrow, but nonetheless deep, difference.

Every year the Dutch dress up in thickly applied black face, they redden their lips and then don a curly haired wig. They do all this and then still, without creativity or humour, try tell us they aren’t dressed up as West African slaves.

Zwarte Piet translates to ‘Black Pete’, and although the Dutch have made many attempts at rewriting and justifying this overtly clear reference to the Dutch slave trade, every year with more and more shame, Dutch men and woman continue to joyfully join the parade.

Sinterklaas and Black Pete, Dutch black face
Nothing to see here.

Crash Course Zwarte Piet History

Sinterklaas and the surrounding festival appears to date back all the way to the middle ages (5th-15th century) with some historians even tracing the festivals origins all the way back to Norse mythology.

Zwarte Piet however, didn’t make an appearance in the festival until some time in the 18th-19th century (after the Dutch Slave Coast had come and gone). His character, Zwarte Piet, first appeared in print in 1850 under a book titled, ‘Sint-Nikolaas en zijn knecht‘ or ‘Saint Nicholas and his servant’ (servant/apprentice according to translation).

The explanation the Dutch used to give, and to some extent still do, for why Zwarte Piet wears a black face is that he is supposed to depict a Moor from Spain. The Sinterklaas festival traces St Nick’s journey from Spain to the Netherlands so you can persuaded into thinking this explanation has some merit. However, with just a touch of critical thought you cannot, not call doubt upon this explanation.

The Moor’s were the Muslim inhabitants of Spain for most of the Middle Ages and although Arab’s do have a darker skin tone, they barely resemble Zwarte Piet and don’t address the numerous additional inferences to slavery Zwarte Piet alludes.

The problem here is that, rather than simply disowning and apologising for the character of Zwarte Piet, the Dutch keep dodging the issue and offering new explanations to justify his presence.

Dutch Revisionism

Traditionally, it seems, that Zwarte Piet would carry with him on parade, a chimney sweep broom for whacking naughty children, very Christmas indeed. And while Mr Piet no longer carries the broom, this prop has been used by the Dutch to explain a more modern justification for how he got his black face.

The story goes that because Zwarte Piet would climb through chimneys to deliver gifts for Sinterklaas that it was the inevitable soot they would have to climb through which would blacken their faces.

Similar to the Moor’s, a reasonable explanation if you choose to shut eye the numerous other obvious indicators to African slavery. Don’t forget the person who is dressing up willing and with clear effort trying to redden the lips and curl the hair. Let alone forgo the most illusory smoking gun, Zwarte Piet’s role is to serve Sinterklaas.

The Dutch, do a good job at not reminding us, but don’t forget, they played a significant role in the slave trade of West Africa.

Regretfully however, despite these obvious retorts, the chimney theory seems to be a winning theme. In recent years Zwarte Piet has been relegated to ‘roetveegpieten‘, or ‘soot-smudge Piet’, offering an uninspired justification for the Dutch to continue this stupid tradition.

old black face and new black face
Less chimney’s these days.

Just Put The Stupid Tradition To Bed

Traditions are always subject to change.

Cultures are not defined by their traditions but their traditions perform an excellent job at purveying their culture.

Cultures ebb and flow according to generations. The Dutch used to trade slaves, and clearly this effected their culture. The Dutch of old, not to forget the Spanish, English, French and co, had ethically bankrupt, racist views which are evidently marked and recorded as consequence of the times.

But like most cultures, the Dutch have changed. They are clearly not a racist people, they no longer hold the views of old.

The need to hold on to your traditions, even when they rub up against the values of your time, is something everyone grapples with.

The Sinterklaas parade changed when the Dutch introduced Zwarte Piet as a reflection of the ages time stamped views. However we have since changed, so just as easily Zwarte Piet can be introduced, he can be removed.

The tradition is so plainly not reimagining soot covered children. It is referencing a time in Dutch history they would rather we all forget.

So get rid of Zwarte Piet, stop putting black makeup on your face. Show some respect to the myriad non-white people of the Netherlands and Belgium who year after year are forced to endure this awkward dance the Dutch do in justification of Zwarte Piet.

Be rid of Zwarte Piet, it won’t change Dutch culture, and it certainly won’t change Dutch history. Via negativa, addition by subtraction. You might even improve the festival.

Some traditions simply need to be put to bed.


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