Zwarte Piet: How tradition can divide a nation

I am Dutch and I love traditions. I really do. Who thinks of Dutch traditions will probably think of King’s Day, eating herring, or the celebration of Sinterklaas on December 5th, who comes every year from Spain with his Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) to deliver presents when you have been good. As a kid, the celebration was always something to look forward to. And the fact that Pete was black? Because of the chimney, of course. Even though I grew up in a multicultural environment, I never connected Zwarte Piet to my Surinamese classmates.

However, this may have been a naïve thought, as the celebration of Sinterklaas and the appearance of Zwarte Piet became increasingly controversial both in the Netherlands and overseas, evoking drastically different points of view. Or may I say, total hysteria? The destruction of a children’s celebration? How exactly could things have almost got to civil disorder? I am pretty disappointed actually, and I will try to explain you why.

The real fuss started in October of last year, when I sold cake at a well-known pastry store in Rotterdam. My supervisor just introduced a special Zwarte Piet discount, including coffee and a bag of kruidnoten – tiny rounded gingerbread cookies, traditionally scattered around by Zwarte Piet. It was UN-researcher Verene Shepherd who waltzed in that afternoon. Well, not literally of course. But all of a sudden, she popped up everywhere in the Dutch media. With a message and a mission. In an interview with EénVandaag, a Dutch current affairs program, she proclaimed that the Sinterklaas celebration is a reversion to slavery and that it should be abolished.

After repeating a few times that the entire celebration was offensive, Shepherd asked what was wrong with only one Santa Claus. “Why do you need two Santa Clauses?”. So, in other words, why are we Dutch people so stubborn? Why can’t we just accept stocking stuffers instead of shoes? A sleigh instead of a steamship? Well, dear Mrs. Shepherd – or can I say Verene? –, I will explain you why. Or actually, I will try to explain why that particular statement is a bit silly.

Only little time could have been spent on some research to find out that Santa Claus – the one who lives on the North Pole and advertises Coca Cola – is actually based on no other than, yes. St. Nicholas. It were the Dutch immigrants who came to New York and brought the tradition to America. However, Sinterklaas gradually became anglicized and is now the Santa Claus we use to know.

Moreover, I found it interesting that Verene never visited The Netherlands during the Sinterklaas festivities. That rang a bell, not only to me but also to the mayor and city council members of Groningen, the city that was honored to welcome Sinterklaas last year. They officially invited Verene to experience the arrival celebrations. According to Roeland van der Schaaf, the deputy mayor of Groningen, the invitation was sent to show Verene that Sinterklaas is actually an innocent celebration for children that has nothing to do with racism. Fair enough, right? I already imagined Verene landing in Amsterdam and getting escorted to Groningen while being served chocolate letters and pepernoten. Later on, after being present at the arrival of Sinterklaas and being stuffed with pastry, she could form her sincere opinion based on true experience, not based on little or no research. But Verene desisted.

That age-old traditions can be dynamic is proven by the already changing appearance of Piet in order to meet with the fuss. Red lips, gold hoop earrings and afro wigs were often left behind, there were Petes with only black smudges or no smudges at all, and – newcomers of this year – yellow cheese- and syrup waffle Petes. The well-known Sinterklaasjournaal – a fictional news rubric for children with headlines related to the Sinterklaas celebrations – even finished their final emission with a black Sinterklaas.

Due to all these changes, things would be less resentful this year. At least, that was what I hoped. Couldn’t have been so wrong. What we are doing is not only squabbling. It involves making each other out for NSB’ers – Dutch fascists during World War II – and kutallochtoon – a curse for immigrants. It involves violent demonstrations during the arrival of Sinterklaas, leaving children confused and gloomy. “No worry, sweetheart. They are only having a romp”, says a dad to his frightened little daughter. It involves hitting a 15-year-old in the face, who was dressed up as Zwarte Piet during the arrival celebrations.

I am not here to take a stance for proponents of Zwarte Piet, nor for the opponents. What I find truly unpleasant is that a children’s celebration turned into a discussion by grown-ups that escalated completely. In a world where innocent people are shot down out of the sky and where fear of Ebola and Islamic State is dominating the world, shouldn’t we be concerned with more urgent problems than waging a cultural war against a fictional children’s friend, which appearance is already subject to more and more modification? White American police officers who discriminate and don’t adequately protect the black community, that is racism. Football players being subject to taunts and thrown bananas because of their descent, that is racism. And although I can understand that the appearance of Zwarte Piet evokes discussion, aren’t we taken it to a bizarre level?

At this time, while Sinterklaas will probably be back in Spain, the crowd has been calmed. Abolishing an age-old tradition would be extremely effusive, especially in a country where we feel strongly about freedom of speech and, therefore, anything is open for discussion. As long as we can discuss it as grown-ups, not as irrational, aggressive nitwits. For next year, I hope nothing but Piet to return. Black, with smudges, colored, I actually don’t care, nor will the children. As long as we still have this tradition to look forward to, modified or not. Because Santa Claus, dear Verene, is probably not going to get the upper hand.

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