Christmas is recognised across the globe as being the holiday of giving and of love. It is a time where people put aside their differences, come together and has quite literally paused wars in its honour. For this reason, it comes as a shock that in certain countries in Europe these traditions involve rather racist undertones.

On one side, it cannot be denied that the festivities in Belgium are beautiful. In England we have adopted the German Christmas Markets, however, they barely do them justice in comparison with the Belgian ones. There is an impressive level of effort poured into establishing these markets, with the lights and products available on sale bringing any dark and grey city an undeniable degree of beauty. Alongside these elements of enchantment, traditions also have rather bizarre components. It is a tradition here for students to beg for money around the 6th of December, whilst wearing long white coats that get signed. If a teacher refuses to give you any change, the student can justifiably throw eggs and flour at you. The money raised is then spent, unsurprisingly, on what is a considered an unforgettable night out in pubs and clubs. However, this is where the joke ends.

this character was introduced in a year when slavery was still very prominent in Western society

When walking around these Christmas markets and watching the students beg for money, surprisingly successfully, it is also common to witness a character that is a white person in blackface. This character is known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who accompanies Sinterklass (Saint Nicholas, who gives presents on the 6th of December). This character was introduced in 1850 and is described as being a Moor who takes bad children away to Spain, where he is from. He is depicted as a black man, and it would perhaps be slightly less insulting if it were played by a black man in real life, however, he is only ever portrayed by a white person in blackface. In recent years, people have tried to claim that the dark skin is to represent the soot that covers him as he goes down the chimney, or the fact he works in a coalmine. Nonetheless, these excuses are far from believable given that this character was introduced in a year when slavery was still very prominent in Western society, and through this character black people are presented as people you should fear.

Zwarte Pieten handing out candy in Den Haag. Image: Flickr

There has been an increase in complaints and an increase in the number of people that are actively speaking out against this racist aspect of Dutch and Belgian tradition, however the situation remains the same. In 2013 the United Nations wrote a letter to the Dutch government, emphasising that the tradition was regarded as disrespectful to people of African descent, to which the Prime Minister replied, ‘Zwarte Piet is black, we can do little to change that’. The traditionalists in Belgium and the Netherlands are the prime individuals to blame for the continuation of such an insensitive tradition, as their response to any attempted change to Zwarte Piet is far from accepting.

When delving further into the topic it became clear that in Belgium the majority feel that dissolving the idea of Zwarte Piet, would also be destroying their customs. In recent years, through the increasing multiculturalism in Belgium, this has become a sour topic, with many Belgians, particularly in the older generation, believing that their culture is being destroyed in order to cater for the surge of others. One particular example raised by some college students interviewed was the fact that their holidays are being changed from being called ‘Christmas’ holidays to ‘Winter’ and the annual Christmas Village/Market has been renamed the Winter Market, in order to respect all religions.

given the gradual increase of intolerance towards the character, the steps are being taken in the right direction to create a change to this tradition.

Nonetheless, given the gradual increase of intolerance towards the character, the steps are being taken in the right direction to create a change to this tradition. Whether this will happen within the next five years is doubtful as traditionalism is deeply ingrained in these respective societies, however, it is something we can remain hopeful for.

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