Christmas in the Netherlands: a Canadian meets Zwarte Piet


Sinterklaas is celebrated in Belgium too and has a statue in his namesake town of Sint-Niklaas. Though in some places he’s called Sint Maarten and comes on the 11 november instead of 6 december. The whole controversy around Zwarte Piet is just an attempt by outsiders to force US trauma’s on what’s a joyous childrens’ celebration. People for whom “black” is synonymous with African American and all the baggage their history brings with it. They can fuck right off.

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One of the good things that came from the controversy is that I, and many others, learned about a similar tradition of a wise white bearded man with clownish black helpers in Persia celebrated in the new year. Amusingly that festival is protected as “world heritage” by the same UN that has announced it will “investigate” Zwarte Piet.

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I think again it all boils down to context. Painting your face black doesn’t automatically make you a racist - right Yolandi?

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Google “Kaapse Klopse” for something similarly problematic to foreigners.

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St. Martin is not St. Claus, they’re two different saints.

And Dutch history with regard to POC is all sunshine and roses, of course. It’s not the same as North American history, that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic.


I don’t want to wade in as a non-Dutch person here about the first-person experience — I’ve been in the Netherlands once, briefly, and have never seen any of these celebrations.

But I would point out that the evolution of the Zwarte Piets in literature and practice isn’t that they were “soots.” He (first singular) was a servant or slave, and was a person of African descent. The evolution of the character (into multiples) and the change into a caricature of an African person is pretty clear: if he were a soot, why are his lips red? Wouldn’t they be black?

In any case, there’s an intent issue which is part of the problem. I would guess among most Dutch, there is absolutely no racist intent to degrade people of African origin, of which millions now live in the Netherlands. White Dutch don’t see this, because they don’t see real people and the Piets having a connection. It’s a kids thing.

But if you’re an African living in the Netherlands, and the worst caricatured style of your people parades around and people laugh at them (but also love them, truly), I’m not sure how one feels about that. Then the people of color are seen as intrusive and spoilsports, right? Even though they may be appalled — and some revel in it and don’t care a bit.


Basically the same reason so many white Americans can’t understand what’s so offensive about certain sports mascots. “It’s not making fun of real people, it’s just a caricature! What’s the big deal?”


It’s pretty obvious from the amply documented historical context that Zwarte Piet has long been depicted as a slave (or at best a servant) of African descent. One needn’t carry American baggage to find such a caricature offensive.


This discussion has been going on for years in the Netherlands. There are many logically arguments that are valid from both sides, and many Dutch understand the points non-Dutch are trying to make.

But here is the thing: it’s an inherently emotional discussion and essentially pointless.

Why would anyone want to change a celebration that brings the biggest smiles on young faces? Children who have never had a political or racist thought are waiting for hours in the cold to catch a glimps of Sinterklaas and maybe even shake Zwarte Piet’s gloved hands if they are lucky. Why would anyone want to change that just to appease a (small) group of people who bothered to find offense somewhere they won’t ever go?

It’s for children. They won’t grow up racist. No offense intended.


You do realize that the Dutch were the biggest slave traders in Europe in the 17th century, right?

I’m not sure what makes you think slavery is just “African American baggage.”


Well it’s not as if there aren’t any dark-skinned people within Holland who find it offensive.

Do you really think all those children’s smiles would disappear without the blackface makeup? I visited the Netherlands in early December once, it seemed to me like the color of Sinterklaas’ companion wasn’t the main source of the festivities.

I understand that. But sometimes “no offense intended” is just a way of saying “I know that what I’m doing offends you and I understand why you find it offensive, I just don’t give a shit.”


If it’s only for children, then it should be fairly easy to change the tradition to something inoffensive. After all, these are children who not only lack political or racist thought, but essentially any thought more than a decade old. Would a new, non-blackface celebration result in a meaningfully inferior experience for these kids and their malleable minds?



According to the Meertens Institute, the idea that Sinterklaas had a helper originated in a book by Jan Schenkman called Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht — his servant or (charitably) helper.

Assuming Knecht (dutch) is the same as Knecht (german): A Knecht is some sort of farm-hand or man-servant and definitely not a slave.

In the region of Germany where I live St. Nikolaus (=Sinterklaas) has a Knecht (Knecht Ruprecht), often dressed up in black or dirty brown clothes whose job it is to punish the bad children and carry the gifts for St. Nikolaus.

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Right—but the dark-skinned version with frizzy hair, bright red lips and immaculate clothing clearly isn’t just “sooty.” If he was supposed to look sooty then the traditional costume would be more like this:

I concede there is no single definitive account of the character’s origins, but his appearance paired with 19th century accounts support the “African guy” theory.

writing in 1884, Alberdingk Thijm remembered that in 1828, as a child, he had attended a Saint Nicholas celebration in the house of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant and consul living in Amsterdam. On this occasion Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, rather than a rod, wore a large basket filled with presents. In 1859, Dutch newspaper De Tijd noticed that Saint Nicholas nowadays was often accompanied by “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less populair than the Holy Bishop himself”. [Wikipedia]

There’s apparently some sub-movement in the Netherlands to stop doing the full blackface and move to sooty smears, like those.


Seems like a good idea to me.


It’s a different saint but the festival has become all but identical in Belgium. Look at these pictures and show me the difference with Sinterklaas.

This discussion has dominated the news, the office-talk, and my conversations with family and friends for weeks now in the Netherlands. To make matters worse, Dutch internet sites were filled with emotional, and very often also offensive, opinions and comments. Perfectly nice people who confessed being ‘anti-piet’ received horrible threats, and perfectly nice people being ‘pro-piet’ were depicted as racists. What also did not help the discussion was the openly racist people supporting the ‘pro-piet’ argument with predictable awful language use and arguments. And to top it all off, the head of the UN committee’s statement that Sinterklaas is of no importance because there is already a Santa Claus (so cancel the whole Sinterklaas celebration altogether) added some more fuel.

The arguments pro or anti piet based on the origin of Piet (slave, or knecht, or black because of the chimney through which he goes to give the presents) are in my opinion totally useless. Yes, they are intended to either demonstrate that Piet is a racist/no racist figure. However, it is not about the intention but about the perception at this day and age.


There clearly are. But there are also dark-skinned people who love Zwarte Piet and don’t want him changed.

I recently heard that part of the reason might be that Sinterklaas is also celebrated in Suriname, but not in the Dutch Antilles and Ghana. Those are the three largest groups of black people in Netherland.

Of course not. Yes, changing the color is absolutely an option that needs to be on the table. But first, we need to be able to have a normal, rational and respectful discussion about this. At the moment, people are way too hot-headed about this on both sides of the discussion. The festival is obviously not going away (which was the unproductive suggestion of a UN-official), but it can change. It has changed in the past, and if there’s sufficient demand for change, it will change again.

But it won’t change if we can’t have a normal discussion about it without accusing each other of racism or hating children.