Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam this week, with his hundreds of Zwarte Pieten (his helpers, all named Black Pete) like he traditionally does every year in mid November. He has been doing so for at least 75 years now, but it might have been the last time the festivities looked like they did all these years. Something is about to change, not so much about Sinterklaas himself, as well as about the Zwarte Pieten.
The Zwarte Pieten traditionally wear pageboy uniforms, black make-up with large painted on red lips, curly wigs and golden earrings. Protesters say the Zwarte Pieten are racist caricatures and should be banned. They do have a point here. The tradition’s defenders say there is no racial insult intended by the way Zwarte Piet looks. That is true of course, but it doesn’t change the racist impression it makes. This debate has gone on for years, but it is now intensifying because anti-Zwarte Piet activists have tried to stop the traditional annual festivities in Amsterdam around the arrival of Sinterklaas, because of the racism aspect. And even the UN jumped in with a panel that will examin whether the tradition is racist.
Some anti-Zwarte Pieten activists have suggested his blackface should be replaced with black smudges, since children are usually told his face has become black from going down chimneys. Well, that’s not too much to ask, is it? It fits in the tradition perfectly.
We could even add some white faced, rainbow faced and other colours of make up for the Pieten to it.
The Zwarte Pieten have already changed a lot. They used to act foolish, like a jester, but nowadays they are smarter than Sinterklaas in many ways. And they have many different roles and responsibilities like way-finding, managing, making music, the ten thousands of gifts, etc. which changed their name from all being ‘Black Pete’ into Way-finding Pete, Managing Pete, etc.
Traditions change all the time, so why not change the way the Pieten look? I hope next year the arriving of Sinterklaas and his Pieten will be nicely traditional but with different looking Pieten.
Yes, Sinterklaas is back in town and he got a very warm welcome as usual. In fact it seems not only children but grown ups too have gone hysterical because of the old man.
Non-Dutch visitors of Amsterdam might wonder who the hell is Sinterklaas I?
If this link doesn’t fulfill your questions about the holey man, there is more help. Try one of these events, inspired by Sinterklaas:
Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, features the holey man in their yearly Sinterklaas exhibition. It’s a serious and informative exhibition about the history of Sinterklaas.
There are English hand outs available for non-Dutch visitors.
From November 17, 2012 to January 6, 2013
Boom Chicago takes a less serious approach in their show:
There is no such thing as Sinterklaas, on life in Holland and holiday traditions.
This show will surely inform you about all Sinterklaas’ ins and outs.
November 12, 23, 29, 30.
December 2, 3, 4, 5.
No it’s not Santa. Sinterklaas is a real Dutch phenomena. Every year on a Sunday in mid November he arrives in Amsterdam, coming from Spain on his steamboat. There he gets on his white horse and takes a tour through Amsterdam. His lively cheerful servants, all named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), run all over the place, being silly and handing over a special sort of candy (pepernoten, speculaas) to the children.
From the arrival of Sinterklaas untill December 5, the kids are excited. Almost everywhere Sinterklaas can pop-up. Because it is a busy time for this old man, everybody finds it perfectly normal to run into an ‘assistant Sinterklaas’ who obviously isn’t the real one, but is treated with the same respect.
Sinterklaas is a generous man, every night he is out with his servants, putting presents and treats in children’s shoes. This leads to a climax on December 5th, when he sends his servants out delivering big bags of presents to almost every house where children live and brings a visit to many of them himself (funny video).
After December 5, Sinterklaas goes home in a quiet way and the Dutch prepare for Christmas. (And maybe even Santa. We don’t mind getting presents twice.)