Happy Sinterklaas, wherever you are

Sinterklaas visits a store during his busy three-week stay in the Netherlands

Wessel and I spent Thanksgiving week in the Netherlands, but of course there was no celebration of the Pilgrims in America (though they did depart from Leiden, in Holland). Instead, we were bombarded with images of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten.

Many say that Sinterklaas is the inspiration for our Santa Claus. Sint looks a bit like Santa, though his belly is smaller. He comes by boat from Spain (I still don’t get that part) mid-November, and his arrival is televised throughout the country. For a few weeks, he visits towns throughout the country. Like Santa, Sint has the uncanny ability to be omnipresent.

Images of Zwarte Piet are everywhere

Instead of elves, Sint has the assistance of a bevy of black men and women. It’s true. They’re the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes (though many are women). These are white people with their faces painted black. Yep, it sounds scarily like our minstrel shows of yore. At one point they were said to be Sint’s slaves then a few decades ago they suddenly became “friends.” Regardless, as an American, I was pretty chagrined to see Piet images everywhere, including toy Pieten, banners, and window decorations. I tried to engage a few Dutch relatives in talks about Piet, but that didn’t go over well.

Zwarte Pieten in a TV show that runs daily while Sinterklaas is in the country

The best overview of the Piet issue I found is here  in the German magazine Spiegel. The funniest take on Zwarte Pieten was written by my former classmate David Sedaris in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men.” (It’s in his 2004 book “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.”)

Zwarte Pieten play music in one of the shopping streets of Alphen aan den Rijn

Finally, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten get down to business on the night of Dec. 5 (Sinterklaasavond), when they leave gifts for the children outside to be opened on Pakjesavond — the evening of the packages. The Dutch also celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, with a tree and a big meal, but no gifts.

Diane meets the real Sinterklaas!

A week ago, on the day we flew back home, we made a stop in Alphen aan den Rijn to visit a friend’s shop. In the distance, Wessel heard the sounds of a marching band and tore off, shouting for me to follow. We turned a corner and there they were! Sinterklaas with his Zwarte Pieten, playing horns and marching through town! Though I’d rather the Petes were elves, I did enjoy the spectacle. And I got a hug from Sinterklaas!

As if there aren’t enough cultural problems with Sinterklaas, now another issue is brewing. Because of the country’s growing Muslim population, some folks object to the cross on Sint’s headdress, and many Sints now wear a solid red hat. I apparently met a “real” Sinterklaas, bearing a cross and leading his six to eight black men.

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11 Responses to “Happy Sinterklaas, wherever you are”

  1. Shoshana Serxner Says:

    Hello Diane:

    The story about Zwarte Piet is that he was a little Moorish boy, found by Saint Nicholas as he was on he way home somewhere in Spain. His horse stopped by a bundle, partially covered in snow, and would not go further. Saint Nicholas took the waif home and raised him. As far as I remember, Zwarte Piet was always a helper, never a slave.

    I am glad you were there at a time of Sinterklaas’ arrival, steamboat, white horse, Zwarte Pieten, and all.

    Hoop to see you at our Sinterklaas party on Sunday,


    • didaniel Says:

      Hi Shosana. Yes, I’ve read a lot of stories about Piet origins. But a white man having a bevy of black helpers is not something that would be widely celebrated in the US — though that’s still largely how our society works. Ah, the irony of it all.

  2. karel Says:

    In former years it was standard that young kids were taught to be obedient all the time. Because Sint Nicolaas (=Sinterklaas) had a big book, wherein he wrote which children had been naughty. And some kids who had made a mess throughout the year were catched by Zwarte Piet and put into the sack , just to take them back to Spain for punishment.
    Nowadays all the children are obedient, no one is brought to Spain (except for a holiday-trip). A striking improvement !
    But in your story Diane, you seem to be excited, to be worrying. Flirtation with Sinterklaas. What’s the matter ? Is your conscience bothering you. Be careful not to be put on the boat to Spain !

    • didaniel Says:

      I wouldn’t mind a trip to Spain!

      • didaniel Says:

        I thought this view on Sint was interesting. It was sent personally to Wessel from a Dutch friend living in the US: “I always celebrate Sinterklaas at my preschool and tell 48 four and five
        year olds something about this very old Dutch tradition. I hardly talk
        about Zwarte Piet, don’t show pictures of him, and if they happen to see
        a picture I explain to them that Sinterklaas’s helper’s face got black
        by climbing down the chimney.”

  3. Lael Moe Denver CO USA Says:

    So the zuarte pieten should have white faces, but lack of a cross would make the Sinterklaas “not real”? Go figure. But really good,fun article to read.

  4. Eric Says:

    FYI, there has traditionally been a Thanksgiving service at Pieterskerk (where the Pilgrims worshipped) in Leiden. It’s less of a religious service than a celebration of America, but it allowed us the chance to observe the holiday when we were living there. We followed up the service with a lovely dinner at Verboten Toegang just down the way from there (but much to my dismay, no turkey or stuffing).

    • didaniel Says:

      Nice to hear about that! I hope to attend that service some day. We actually were only a couple hours from Leiden this past Thanksgiving, but couldn’t squeeze it in. I did visit the church when I spent a few weeks in Leiden studying Dutch.

  5. Lina Kok Says:

    Interesting Reuters piece on Zwarte Piet:
    Time for Santa to wave “vaarwel” to Black Pete?

    New to me was that Zwarte Piet only made his first appearance in a mid-19th century illustrated book by Dutch teacher Jan Schenkman while the Sinterklaas celebration has been a Dutch tradition for centuries.
    See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwarte_Piet

    The Regenboogpiet (Rainbow Pete) was introduced in 2006.

    Maybe, one day all Zwarte Pieten will be replaced with Regenboogpieten. However, for now, the conversion to Rainbow Petes doesn’t seem to be going any faster than snail’s pace.

    • didaniel Says:

      Thanks for that, Lina. It’s interesting to me how this topic comes up every year. I’m guessing that some day there will be a tipping point and Zwarte Piet will become a relic of a less inclusive time.

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