Posts Tagged ‘David Sedaris’

Happy Sinterklaas, wherever you are

December 5, 2009

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.

Advertisements