Christmas in the Netherlands: a Canadian meets Zwarte Piet
Lianne Bergeron meets the Black Petes, the Netherlands' equivalent to Santa's elves. Innocent or otherwise, the tradition's defenders can't mask its unsettling associations--or the fact that its once-local context has gone global.
Children dressed in costumes, singing songs at the top of their lungs, line the dock of the harbor in our small village in the Netherlands on the afternoon of November 16. A steamboat purportedly from Spain putters in carrying the group that the kids have waited nearly a year to see again: the Sint and his helpers.
As the ship arrives at the dock and the occupants disembark, the singing transforms into a high-pitched frenzy. With his red coat and long white beard, Sinterklaas looks an awful lot like Santa, but the similarities end there. He’s tall and skinny; he wears a white cassock with a red cape, holds a staff, and his tall red hat has a yellow cross on it. His boat arrives from his home in “Spain” at this time every year.1
He brings his Zwarte Piets (“Black Petes”), the local equivalent of Santa’s elvish helpers, although we never use that word; they’re always called by name. There’s no North Pole and no snow for this bearded guy and his friends.
The Piets hand out loads of cookies and candies, and the Sint shakes hands with as many kids as he can.2 We spend the afternoon with them before the Sint rides off on a white horse to the next city, where other kids await his arrival.3 The children come home exhausted, face paint staining their coats, and immediately place their shoes by the fireplace with a note and a carrot inside.
This is the particular celebration of Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands. Every culture and country has a festival or figure that baffles those who aren’t part of it; Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets seem to appear even more indecipherable than most, however — even to me after years of living here.
As a Canadian, I cherish Christmas Eve and Christmas day. But as a resident of the Netherlands, married to a Dutch man, I celebrate Sinterklaas along with everyone else. This time of year lets me combine two similar, wonderfully rich traditions of giving and magic. Although, for this mother of four, it can eventually become a little much.
During the next three weeks, the Sint and his companions create chaos throughout the country as kids check as often as nightly for a small gift in the shoes they left out and hope that they were good enough this year to receive a bag full of presents on the final night. (Naughty children were once told they would be put in sacks and carried back to Spain.)
Of course, the responsibility for this orgy of ongoing gift-giving and candy-stuffing lies firmly on the shoulders of parents — and more particularly, on mothers like me.
Even beyond the challenges I experience from being an active participant in the tradition that my husband, children, friends, and neighbors celebrate with the Sint, a growing movement to displace the Black Petes has complicated what was once a quieter time of year for me.
Christmas Eve and morning were the highlights of my year as I grew up in Canada. A week or so before Christmas we would choose a tree, bring it home, and create decorations to add to the ones from years past. (I’ve kept this handmade tradition alive with my own family.) Christmas Eve, we sang French carols and ate my grandmother’s turkey dinner.
After the tree was decorated, our Christmas stockings came out and we hung them from the end of our beds. I will never forget the feeling of kicking my feet around after midnight with the hope that they would hit a filled stocking, nor the excitement of waking up with my siblings and sitting silently in our beds, eating the pieces of melting Christmas chocolate.
Once dawn broke, we would wake up my parents and run downstairs to see what Santa had brought. We each received one present, unwrapped and lined up by age — there were 6 of us — in front of the tree.
These traditions seem blissfully restful when compared to the Dutch frenzy. But I have to admit that I’ve grown to like the way the Netherlands celebrates the season, even as I tap away at the lengthy Excel spreadsheet in front of me in which I carefully plan out three weeks of gift-giving for our family and friends.
For the three weeks after the Sint arrives, children watch the Sinterklaas news channel, a national television mega-production. They believe every word. The program said this year that the boat from Spain had turned back to collect the Sint’s gold staff, which had been left behind; my children freaked out.
The kids sing folk songs from the time they wake until they go to bed. It is the theme at school, daycare, sports, and all other activities. Our children beg to put their shoes out each night in the hopes of finding gifts, chocolate coins, and other sweet treats when morning comes.4
In our neighborhood, we have agreed that small gifts twice a week over three weeks is more than enough. I try to encourage the use of shoes that haven’t been worn too many times; otherwise, the gifts stink and the carrots go to waste. The kids hardly sleep, and get up early to check.
For adults — along with older kids in the know — the holiday focuses more on creating humorous poems and craftily wrapped special but small gifts for another person, who is secretly assigned. It’s a bit like an American “secret Santa,” although much more significant.
The person who writes the doggerel and makes a gift surprises the recipient on the last night of the season, the same night that the traditional bag of presents arrives for everyone. This extra tradition keeps everyone involved, and people put a lot of importance on making these surprises.
The frenzy culminates on the evening of December 5, in a party full of gifts, songs, and traditional sweets. The anticipation begins to build up a couple of days before, and parents find themselves sorting out last-minute gifts as well as finding a fast neighbor to knock on the door and deliver the gifts before anyone sees him or her. (This is a challenge, considering the speed at which the kids run to the door!)
Even this has a set of traditions behind it. Before the knocking starts, someone has to leave the door “accidentally” ajar, and the knocker reaches in to scatter cookies and candies. This signals that the Sint is in the neighborhood. The kids become very alert; you can almost cut through the tension.
The cookie- and candy-throwing goes on for a couple of rounds until the knock arrives. The kids sprint to the door, crushing a number of cookies on the way, to pick up their bag of gifts. Presents are opened, thank-you songs are sung, poems are read, and the surprises unpacked. The end.
Well, not quite. Sinterklaas also leaves the village on his steamboat on December 6 with great fanfare. In my village, the Christmas tree arrives as the Sint departs.
For Piets’ sake
Santa Claus’s historical and religious origins are fairly clear, no matter the country in which he’s celebrated nor how he’s named. His factual predecessor is Saint Nicholas (Sint Nicolaas in Dutch, or Saint Nicolas in French), who was the bishop of Myra, now part of modern-day Turkey. He was born to wealthy Christian parents in the year 270 and died December 6, 343. An orphan, and very religious at a young age, he spent his life giving away his inheritance anonymously to those in need, particularly children. His tomb seeped a liquid that believers call “manna,” a pleasant-smelling, colorless substance to which healing powers are attributed.
The anniversary of his death became a feast day celebrated in many European countries and in some Dutch colonies. But the Dutch have clutched Saint Nicholas most closely to their heart, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The oldest evidence found of a celebration dates back to 1360 in the medieval city of Dordrecht, where kids were given the day off to celebrate. He became a distinct, somewhat mythical character in about 1845, when he is first depicted in bishop-like clothing as seemingly magical but also strict and mystically hermetic. He rewarded the good and punished the bad. (The Dutch never had a Krampus.)
The bishop underwent a slow transition toward jolliness and friendliness, picking up an assistant along the way, who multiplied into a set. The helper appears first in an 1850 book.5 He became known as Zwarte Piet in another book, written in 1891.6 That put Piet into the celebration from then on; after World War II, multiple Zwarte Piets began to assist the Sint. (In America, Thomas Nast and Coca-Cola took Saint Nick on his journey to commercialism.)
The people portraying the Zwarte Piets wear black face paint, curly black wigs, and bright red lipstick that emphasizes full lips. They wear gold hoop earrings and dress like jesters, in brightly colored silks. The Zwarte Piets range in personality from Crazy Piet to Messy Piet, from Hungry Piet to Funny Piet, Sneaky Piet, Forgetful Piet, Tired Piet, and many more.
The country is full of people dressed up as Zwarte Piets: you see them on the streets, in the schools, at the zoo, and even in people’s homes. They are responsible for (allegedly) climbing roofs and dropping down the chimney to fill children’s shoes with gifts every day.
Their makeup and manner has increasingly caused controversy, as any reader outside of the Netherlands can easily imagine. To those not raised here, the Piets look like the worst caricatures of black people. They resemble the performers in American minstrel shows in the 1800s and early 1900s, who used quite similar makeup to exaggerate stereotypical African features, and perform variety shows and sing spirituals. Minstrelsy didn’t fade almost completely in America until the 1960s.
There’s a discussion every year about whether the Zwarte Piets are a racist depiction that needs an overhaul, or a tradition that has no such connotations that should be preserved intact. But this year, the discomfort felt by some came to a head in advance of Sinterklaas’s arrival, and has provoked more controversy on both sides than ever before.
On Facebook, a Piet’ition appeared in favor of keeping the Zwarte Piets the way they are. Over two days, it racked up two millions “likes,” an unprecedented accumulation for a county of 17 million people. The Dutch defenders of the Zwarte Piets will tell you that the black on the character’s face comes from the chimney soot as he shimmies down the pipe or because of his Moorish background.
Africans of any origin were few in number in Europe for much of its history — outside the long control of Spain by the Moors, who included Muslims both of Middle Eastern and African origin — and that, combined with the Piets’ literary origins, leaves a lot of room for people to debate over what their blackness means.
During the weeks leading up to this year’s arrival, the issue of the Piets has taken over the front page of every Dutch newspaper, not to mention TV media, radio, and Web sites. While it’s not a new debate, it ignited more forcefully this year and became international news, including an examination in the Economist. There is also talk of a UN resolution that would look into whether the Black Petes are a racist stereotype.
The question asked by international media is: How can a country as free-minded as the Netherlands continue to have black servants in this annual celebration?7 Sinterklaas has already changed so much, from a severe, judgmental figure to one who, with help, drops off bags of presents.
The tradition may change further (as most traditions do), reflecting what the surrounding society wants and finds acceptable. This will no doubt affect the Zwarte Piets’ persistence.
The gifts of change
Fortunately, the Zwarte Piets aren’t the backbone of the season. Community is. Sinterklaas is now a commercial icon, and his gifts to the poor and vows of poverty morphed into a holiday that celebrates acquisition. But we and our families and neighbors look forward to the camaraderie.
Young and old, rich and poor — all give importance to the weeks leading up to December 5. The Netherlands doesn’t become a giant “Whoville” from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas at this time of year: adults and children alike enjoy the gifts and surprises. But the celebration does stretch far outside just giving and receiving presents.
I have accepted what I cannot understand, and I embrace the best parts of this three-week frenzy. But I do have one condition: though he may be one and the same as Sinterklaas, it’s Santa who still flies over our house every Christmas Eve.
Lianne Bergeron is a Canadian author and entrepreneur who lives and works near Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and four kids. When she’s not teaching English, writing articles, or working on her books, she can be found on the road on her bicycle built for six.
Illustration by Andy Warner. His comics have been published by Slate, American Public Media, Symbolia, KQED, popsci.com, and Generation Progress. He is the co-founder and co-editor of Irene. He lives in San Francisco and he comes from the sea. ↩
Arrival and bottom photo by the author. Photo of girl dressed as the Sint by Árpád Gerecsey.
Though Saint Nicolas was originally from what is now known as Turkey, in 1087 some of his remains (“relics”) were brought to Bari, Italy, then part of the Kingdom of Naples. Later, this area fell under the ruling of Karel V and Philip II of Spain, which is one explanation for why Sinterklaas “comes from Spain.” ↩
The cookies are called peppernootjes and use a mix of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, and white pepper. These cookies can be easily found from September until the end of December, though if you look hard enough you can buy them year round. This particular mixture, called “speculaas,” is included in breads and pastries, as well as the cookies. ↩
Many men play the Sint across the country, but the performers are nowhere near as ubiquitous as Santa in America. The Piets are all locals, and becoming one is taken quite seriously. ↩
The tradition of shoes dates as far back as the 15th century, when shoes were set out in churches on Saint Nicholas Day to collect money for the poor. That evolved into children collecting gifts, sweets, and, after World War II, a bag of gifts. This is very Dutch. Shoes turned into Christmas stockings in North America and elsewhere. ↩
Het Feest van Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas’s Party), written by Jan Mens, introduced the idea of a “black helper called Piet.” ↩
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