Santa Claus’s helpers

Imagine a place with a holiday custom that Santa Claus is accompanied by one or more helpers whose tasks are to amuse children and to scatter Christmas candies to those who come to meet St. Nicholas as he visits stores, schools, and other places: elves, in effect. Sweet custom, right? But now suppose the helpers look like this:

Whoa!

There is such a place, the Low Countries of Europe, especially the Netherlands, and these guys are Zwarte Pieten ‘Black Peters’, currently the center of controversy in the Netherlands.

From Wikipedia:

Zwarte Piet … is the companion of Saint Nicholas … in the folklore of the Low Countries. The character first appeared in his current form in an 1850 book by Jan Schenkman and is commonly depicted as a blackamoor. Traditionally Zwarte Piet is said to be black because he is a Moor from Spain. Actors portraying Zwarte Piet typically put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. In recent years, the character has become the subject of controversy, especially in the Netherlands.

The Zwarte Piet character is part of the annual feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaasavond, that is, St. Nicholas’ Eve) in the Netherlands, Curaçao and Aruba and on 6 December in Belgium and Luxembourg, when sweets and presents are distributed to children. The characters of Zwarte Pieten appear only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’s feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by boat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain).

Now the controversy, from an article in the Economist in the December 6th issue:

Dutch race relations: Blacked up. A worsening clash over tradition and racial sensitivities

The Dutch festival of Sinterklaas on December 5th, the country’s most important children’s holiday, is turning into an annual slugfest of racial politics. The problem is the figure of Zwarte Piet, an impish clown with a black face who accompanies the bearded St Nicholas (“Sinterklaas”) on his rounds, distributing presents and biscuits. The character is derived from 17th-century paintings of Moorish slaves, and many Dutch with African ancestry find it offensive. Most white Dutch fail to see the problem, and react angrily to accusations that their tradition is racist. The conflict plays out in the media, the schools, the courts and at Sinterklaas parades around the country. And it has fed into culture wars between Dutch liberals and anti-immigration populists such as Geert Wilders.

Opponents of the tradition thought they had won a victory earlier this year, when a court ordered Amsterdam to bar Zwarte Piets from its Sinterklaas parade. But a higher court reversed that decision last month. Amsterdam, with its leftist politics and large immigrant population, has taken a conciliatory approach, ordering some Piets merely to smear their faces to suggest they have climbed down a chimney. (Many white Dutch use this just-so story to excuse the character’s skin colour, though it fails to explain his curly hair and thick, bright-red lips.) Other liberal Dutch are switching to multicoloured “rainbow Piets”. But in most Dutch towns, Zwarte Piet remains thoroughly blacked-up. At a Sinterklaas parade in the town of Gouda, protests by anti-Zwarte Piet activists led to 90 arrests.

(Morphological note: the Economist piece gives Zwarte Piet an English plural, Zwarte Piets, while the Wikipedia article uses the Dutch plural, Zwarte Pieten.)

It’s notable that so many white Dutch people are offended by the racism charge. They see themselves as tolerant people, long over the racist attitudes of their colonial past, and they see Zwarte Piet as a merely playful character. But it’s hard for outsiders to see entertainment in blackface, involving characters with kinky hair and thick lips, as truly innocent.

One Response to “Santa Claus’s helpers”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Livia Polanyi on Facebook, following up on my “It’s hard for outsiders to see entertainment in blackface, involving characters with kinky hair and thick lips, as truly innocent.”:

    It’s also hard for a lot of black Dutch children who distinctly dislike being pointed at by other children yelling “Zwarte Piet” at them.

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