This is a bit of a late post, but on November 18, me, Amanda and Katja (who both live in the same building as I do) went to the “Sinterklaas Intocht” (which roughly means “The Arrival of Sinterklaas”) in Amsterdam this year. It was Katja’s first intocht, as she is orginally from Germany, so it was an important day for her integration into Dutch culture! I assume the tradition of Sinterklaas is fairly unknown to most of you as well, so I will give a short explanation and briefly discuss its current controversies.
First, it is important to know that Santa Claus was actually largely based on Sinterklaas. Because of this, both traditions bear many resemblances. Sinterklaas, the patron saint of children, is celebrated on the evening of 5 December (the Netherlands) or the morning of 6 December (Belgium). Originally, the tradition stems from celebrating the name day of Saint Nicholas, a Roman Catholic bishop. On December 5 or 6, children will celebrate Sinterklaas by opening their presents, which were secretly brought (through the chimney) by Sinterklaas and his helpers: Zwarte Pieten.
The controversies surrounding the tradition involve these “Zwarte Pieten (literally “Black Petes”). Every year, many teenagers and adults paint their faces brown or black, paint their lips red and wear gold earrings and afro wigs to participate in cheerful parades and school visits. Naturally, this has led to discussions about the appropriateness of continuing this tradition.
There are several theories concerning the origin of Zwarte Piet and I will briefly state those featured on wikipedia. The first and oldest theory, from Norse mythology, tells that the helpers symbolise the two ravens Hugin and Munin who brought information to the God Odin. In later stories the helper depicts the defeated devil. The devil is defeated by either Odin or his helper Nörwi, the black father of the night. Nörwi is usually depicted with the same staff of birch (Dutch: “roe”) as Zwarte Piet. The second is the story that Saint Nicolas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called ‘”Piter” (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market. Piter was so grateful for this act that he subsequently decided to stay and help Saint Nicholas. The third is the tale that is nowadays told to children: Zwarte Pieten have faces smudged by soot from the chimneys they travel down to deliver the presents. Obviously this doesn’t explain the other stereotypical features, but this is what I believed as a child as well.
Honestly, as a child, I never associated Zwarte Pieten with people with darker skin tones. Not even once. Neither did my sister or my brother. They looked more like clowns. So to us, Zwarte Pieten were entirely unique, almost magical creatures, who helped Sinterklaas deliver presents. We did not associate them with anything else but Sinterklaas and 5 december, and just to be clear; if there’s anything that I despise in a person, it’s racism.
The reality is, however, that people are uncomfortable with the tradition, so the Netherlands is looking into other possibilities. To me, it seems hypocritical to argue tradition over the fact that the concept of Zwarte Piet bears obvious traces of a racist history in the Western World. Unfortunately, previous attempts to re-introduce Zwarte Piet, including rainbow-coloured faces, have failed miserably. Personally, if we are going to continue to explain Zwarte Pieten by their trips down the chimney, I’d suggest introducing a Zwarte Piet with just a few dark smudges on his or her face and getting rid of those ridiculous red lips and afro wigs. But changing a tradition is tricky business.
Regardless of the issues surrounding Sinterklaas, I’d like emphasize its positive aspects and share a few photos I took during the parade:
Behold! It is Katja posing proudly with her chocolate letter “K”. It is customary to gift each other with a chocolate letter corresponding with the first letter of his or her first name. As a child, you would place one of your shoes in front of the fireplace in the evening after singing a few carols, to find your shoe filled with a chocolate letter in the morning (or some other type of candy or small toy). You might find your shoe as empty as the evening before in case you got too enthusiastic with placing your shoe in front of the fireplace a few evenings too many. I speak from experience, it doesn’t work. Sinterklaas is no fool. And no I don’t know why the guy in the background is looking so disdainfully at that leaf on the ground.
There was quite an impressive amount of policemen and women present at site to ensure the safety of the public (and Sinterklaas, considering he has a lot of hardcore fans between the ages 1 to 8), but they joined in the fun by wearing paper “mijters”, imitating Sinterklaas’ headwear. The guy in the helmet doesn’t count. If you look closely to the right you can actually see a mother commiting a shameful crime trying to squeeze her bike/pram in between the fences to get to the other side, which was strictly forbidden. She looks so guilty keeping an eye on the cops (you might have to click to enlarge).
These are the notorious “zwarte pieten” in their natural habitat. Dancing to the Sinterklaas-themed music and throwing “kruidnoten” (literally spice nuts) all around the crowds for children (and me) to catch. This particular Piet is holding a “roe”: a chimney sweep’s broom made of willow branches, which is supposedly used to spank naughty children. It serves as more of a motivation to the children to behave well during the year, because I never got the “roe” even though I was obviously a pain in the ass for most of the year and I still got my presents; after a few years I figured that Sinterklaas was just bluffing.
Here I’ve caught another felony on camera: these pieten are kidnapping a naughty child from the crowd to take back to Spain, where Sinterklaas and his pieten live during the rest of the year. Ok, obviously they’re just hugging the child, but that’s not the point. Besides the “roe”, we were told that if we were to have behaved especially mischievous during the year, Sinterklaas might come and get us to take us back to Spain with him, in order to learn how to behave well. I was always convinced that I could’ve never have reached that level of evilness as I always let the dung flies live when they flew into the house during summer. I once had a pet dung fly living in my room for 2 weeks and I named it Bertha. You can ask my mother I am not lying.
Here he is the Goedheiligman (the Good Holy Man) himself: Sinterklaas! He is wearing a custom-made “mijter” on his head with the three crosses of Amsterdam featured in the middle. Usually Sinterklaas wears a mijter with a large gold-ish christian cross in the middle.
Here he is again riding his loyal grey horse “Amerigo”, named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
And I will conclude this post with a bunch of pieten who enthusiastically posed for my camera!