On Nov. 23, 2005 I moved to The Hague from Washington, DC. This is my new Dutch life.

12.06.2005

Racism - Just in time for the Holidays


Yesterday was Sinterklaas Day, the gift-giving portion of the Dutch holiday season.

The Sinterklaas tradition goes a little like this:

Sint Nikolaas (St. Nicholas), the patron saint of children as well as seamen, merchants, archers, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers, prisoners, Russia and Amsterdam, was also fond of giving secret gifts. Hmm gotta hand it to the Dutch to be the first to bring merchants and children together. Convenient.

Sinterklaas lives in Spain (no one knows why) and once a year he takes a boat up to the Netherlands with his pal Zwarte Piet, Black Peter. Black Peter helps him compile the famous list of children who are naughty and nice. They turn up mid-November to much fanfare in one of the Netherlands port cities, and then proceed to celebrate in shopping areas until December 5.

On the night of December 5, legend has it that Sinterklaas and Black Peter ride a white horse on the rooftops of Dutch houses and apartment buildings bringing treats to good little children. Sound familiar? Generally he sends Black Peter down the chimney, or through the radiator pipe if that's more convenient, to deposit chocolates and other goodies in wooden shoes.

The Dutch can also be thanked for the dreaded office party tradition, Secret Santa. Dutch adults celebrate Sinterklaas by drawing names to determine who'll they'll buy a present for. The presents are given anonymously with a hand-written poem, poking fun of the person receiving the gift. So, it's also a bit of a roast.

But let's talk a bit about Black Peter. It's said that he's a moor. Fair enough, I guess. But is it really necessary to dress him up like a clown? Black face, big afro, bright red lips? We also know that the real Saint Nicholas lived in Turkey, perhaps he should be a bit less, uhm, Dutch looking as well. Others say that Black Peter is black because he crawls around in chimneys. That wouldn't explain the big afro and red lips or why his clothes aren't dirty.

In doing research on Sinterklaas, I came across one person who suggests that Black Peter might actually spank naughty children and even whisk them away to Spain. Useful parenting aid, I suppose. "Be nice or Black Peter will take you away."

Let's just put it out there - Dutch traders brought the first slaves to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. So, it's not hard to imagine that Black Peter was less of a 'pal' to Sinterklaas, and more likely his personal servant. We'll just say slave. You can say what you will about American political correctness, but I can't shake the feeling that this is a seriously insensitive tradition, especially given the Netherlands' very checkered past.

The characterization of Black Peter as goofy clown or dark stranger that steals naughty children in the night would not be tolerated in modern America. Perhaps it's because the Dutch don't have to live everyday with the product of their historical bad deeds. It's easy to say to your kids, "Oh Black Peter is just fun" when they don't go to school with the ancestors of your former slaves.

What's interesting is that there are a lot of immigrants from former Dutch colonies in the Netherlands. Perhaps when you choose to move to a country for economic opportunity (as opposed to enslaved and deposited there), you tolerate the culture of your adopted land. Or so the French thought.

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2 Comments:

Blogger hotrod said...

this year i made it my duty to undermine the whole secret santa process by telling as many people as i could whose name i drew. i HATE secret santa. but then, i hate most traditions of this time of the year. don't even get me started on carols...

5:52 PM GMT+1

 
Anonymous A Cotton Plantation Owner said...

I like this Black Peter...and children should be afraid...very afraid...we have a whole country full of "Black Peters"...beware, they are full of Danger and carry guns and will kill most that come their way!They do not live in Spain , but the Sourthern part of the USA, and they come out all during the year not just Christmas!

10:52 AM GMT+2

 

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