Christmas traditions and colonial heritage – Zwarte Piet

Posted by in Posts in English, Reflections

Many Western nations pride themselves with cheesy Christmas traditions. But the Dutch ones are particularly intriguing to the outsider, with the noticeable presence of a strange little helper to Sinterklaas –the Nordic Father Christmas equivalent- : Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Over the past few years, the character of Zwarte Piet has stirred outrage from groups of citizens pointing at its racist nature. The national debate has drawn attention from several English-speaking media, including the BBC  and Al Jazeera (see below).


Every year during the weeks preceding the 5th of December, in streets, offices, shopping malls, and even canals, the arrival of Sinterklaas is praised through long parades or gatherings, and candy distributions. The childrens’ hero is accompanied by a character that young Dutch adore even more : the black-faced Zwarte Piet, a facetious boy wearing Renaissance-style colored clothes and hat, golden earrings, and painted red lips. As Sinterklaas waves at the crowd or holds children on his lap, Zwarte Piet (or, usually, several of them) runs around throwing candies and amusing the audience in a clownish fashion.

Appearing first in a children’s book in 1850, the character of Zwarte Piet has evolved throughout the centuries. Although its origins remain uncertain, many consider him a figure of a « blackamoor » a Maur from Spain, where Sinterklaas his said to have its home. Some consider that his skin color was not to be black, only permanently covered in coal from chimneys. Others relate him to an ancient tale telling the story of Sinterklaas rescuing a young boy from slavery, who would later stay with him as a companion.

The interesting feature of this tradition, however, does not lie in the historical debates around its inception. It lies in the different symbols and meanings that the inhabitants of the country have attached to it, and in the subsequent conflicts arising.

For many children and young adults of the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet is the main character of the winter folklore, the most endearing one, impersonating the magic and frenzy of Christmas. He is the one who brings the gifts. He is the one in the name of which you write poems for your friends on the 5th of December. He is deeply associated with most children’s winter school memories.

« At preschool, everybody wanted to be Zwarte Piet. He was by far our favorite one! », a friend tells me.

According to that same friend, now in his late twenties, Zwarte Piet is simply part of the traditional folklore, and is loved by kids so much that he, a well educated young man, cannot understand why this simple tradition could be harmful to anyone. And his view is largely shared. Zwarte Piet does not only find its defenders in preschool classrooms, but among many grown-up Dutch. On my way to university one morning, I was surprised to find seating in front of me in the metro a young man in his twenties fully dressed up as Zwarte Piet, his face black and lips red, wearing mock golden ear rings. He confusedly explained he was dressing up as such for his study group, to whom he would distribute candies out of the big bag at his feet.

Polls show that around 90% of those surveyed don’t associate Zwarte Piet with racism. Most are against a transformation of the tradition. Like my friend, many Dutch feel somewhat attacked, or taken aback, by the recent questioning of Zwarte Piet, whom they feel is part of their life. Many consider criticism of the character as pointless and even ridiculous, as they see Zwarte Piet as a harmless, yet irreplaceable, friendly icon.

Yet many characteristics of the black-faced helper raise questions. Apart from being the one who brings gifts, Zwarte Piet is Christmas’ jester, whose tricks and clumsiness are a source of great excitement for kids.  In some schools, teachers stage big messes created in the classrooms by clumsy or facetious Piets, with delighted children then having to put things back in order, laughing at Piet’s trick. In others, Piet messes up name stickers on children’s gifts, which children also find extremely amusing. So if black Pete may be children’s favorite character, he is also a relatively ridiculed one. Who happens to bear many attributes of the 18th century caricature of a black servant.

Symbols cannot be ignored, and tradition cannot be a justification for all behaviors or habits. Red lips, golden earrings, faultlessly remind the outsider of 18th century slaves depictions.  And several, in the Netherlands, did not fail to draw this link and protest against the century-old tradition. Campaigns such as « Zwarte Piet is Racisme » or « Zwarte Piet Niet » were launched by collectives, featuring protests and social media mobilization. Even though these two groups remain modest -at least on Facebook (16000 likes for the first and about 3600 for the second) dissenting voices have made themselves heard. Quinsy Gario is an artist who launched the slogan « Zwarte Piet is Racism » and susbsequent protests, one of which leading to his arrest for disrupting a local Sinterklaas celebration. On his tumblr, he wrote that a conversation with his mum was the starting point of his actions, when she explained being called « Zwarte Piet » in front of customers when returning to work after a break:

« ‘We were wondering where our Black Piet was, and there you are!’ Dismayed, hurt and offended she did not deal with it. »

Another self-proclaimed spokesman of Zwarte Piet activists is Jerry King Luther Afriyie, also arrested with Gario in 2011, who has been interviewed by the BBC :

« Zwarte Piet is a figure based on the stereotypical depiction of black people in the 19th Century. His appearance is a direct reference to the Dutch past of colonialism and slavery. » Jerry King Luther Afriyie

Questioning Zwarte Piet is not waging a war against Dutch traditions, or calling every white Dutch racist. It is not a trial of generations of parents’ and school teachers’ intentions. It is about realizing that this figure does echo very strongly with the country’s colonial past, reminding unintentionally that, for a very long time, black men and women have been considered inferior and traded as sheer workforce, and countless colored young men and children have been used as « boys » by powerful white older men.  The heated debates that took place in the past years are a sign that this character is increasingly seen by a harmful and displaced symbol, and as such should be avoided.

For a further illustration of the Zwarte Piet debate, see this other Al Jazeera video with their show « The Stream » where various stakeholders and watchers can interact with the hosts.