Christmas festivities differ across the globe. Here, Christmas is the jewel of the winter season with everyone going a little crazy for the festive time; meanwhile, in Holland Christmas is considerably more muted. This is due to the earlier celebration of Sinterklaasavond (St Nicholas’ Eve) and the subsequent feast of Sinterklaas. This takes place on the evening of 5 December. Children leave their shoes next to their household fireplace with the hope that Sinterklaas will visit and fill them with treats such as mandarin oranges, pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed (an assortment of Dutch treats). Often these will be accompanied by a small gift and a poem which will tease the receiver on their bad habits. Presents are then delivered by Sinterklaas’ assistant Zwarte Piet.
All in all, this tradition is a fun, wholesome celebration but, swathes of controversy surround the Zwarte Piet figure with many groups desiring change. To explain, the companion of Sinterklaas is commonly played by a white person with a blackened face, bright red lips and a curly wig. This depiction alludes to the traditional folklore where the Zwarte Piet figures were slaves to Sinterklaas. Over time they have become assistants rather than slaves, yet the physical appearance of these individuals remains contentious. The look of Zwarte Piet is understandably problematic. The figure is construed by some as a racial stereotype which could easily offend Dutch citizens who are first and second generation individuals descended from Carribbean and South American colonies. Further offence could be taken from the behaviour of the traditional Zwarte Piet. In folklore, naughty children risk being caught by Zwarte Piet who carried a jute and willow cane to take them away. These actions if attached to matters of race could indeed come across as offensive. This is only emphasised by critical discussion of the duality in the relationship between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet: that of the white saint and the black servant.
The look of Zwarte Piet is understandably problematic
In recent years, protests surrounding the depiction of Zwarte Piet have grown. One section of Dutch society has been protesting since the 1970s. Their argument is that the tradition is an outdated relic from a colonial past which is unfit for a multicultural society. As argued by Artwell Cain (the director of the National Insitute for the study of Dutch Slavery) the figure is an “affront to African diaspora in the Netherlands”. Due to this growing unrest, there have been efforts to change the racial connotations of the holiday. In 2006, the Dutch Programme Foundation encouraged the Zwarte Pieten figures to paint their faces red, blue and green but alas this did not prove successful.
The common counter-argument for some is that Zwarte Piet is a friendly and adored figure within Dutch festivities. It has transformed from child abductor to a mischievous clown who delivers gifts. It is a tradition that still brings joy to children and it is the critics themselves who make it a matter of race. One study examined whether children associate Zwarte Piet with a black man with the results displaying the association to strongly sit with clown figure rather than a distinguishing race. As a matter of compromise, the argument at present stands that the clown figure is black from chimney soot after delivering the gifts. This implies that the black face make up has been toned down in an effort to avoid controversy. This is arguably a weak attempt at compromise but it is finding the balance between tradition and modern day perspective that will ensure that this holiday remains a pleasurable experience in future.