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"Santa's Black Pete" -- racially offensive or just good fun?

A number of listeners wrote in response to Lauren Comiteau's December 1/4 dispatch from Amsterdam on growing offense to the blackface tradition of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten:

 

Roisin van der Put of Port Hood, Cape Breton has some personal experience with Sinterklaas and Zwartepieten:

Hi,
I am an Irish woman who lived in Holland for 11 years. All my children were born there and attended regular Dutch school. I was at first quite taken aback when I saw the Zwartepieten and even more so when I noticed how all children (and parents) adored these mischievous, fun loving characters. But having lived there for 11 years and seeing how innocently children of all races accept and love the zwartepieten I realize that there is no malice or offense intended. To take the zwartepieten away who be the equivalent of taking Santa Claus away from Canadian children.

We Moved to Port Hood, Cape Breton, NS two years ago from Holland. My husband is Dutch.

I enjoy listening to your show.

All the best

John Kellner of La Ronge, SK agrees:

Hello!

I caught the end of your piece about the "Black Pete" tradition around the Christmas season in the Netherlands - and could plainly hear that the correspondent telling the story was not comfortable with the Petes made up in what would be called "blackface."

It seems clear to me that this is a tradition that is very old.  Generations and generations of Dutch children have grown up with Zwarte Piete, and he is associated with the joy of the season - not a mockery of a skin colour or a race.

Children love this character, not because he is funny in a mocking way, but because he is kind, giving, colourful and a part of the culture and the season.

This was evident in the comments from the Dutch man who brought his children to a Christmas event when he said that Black Pete was not a symbol of racism, but rather a part of the Dutch Christmas tradition - and definitely not racist.

I'm positive that all Dutch people are not racists, and either am I.  It's about intent, what's in your heart, that matters. It's Christmas in the Netherlands, and if you don't like it you should celebrate Christmas somewhere else.

PS: I do not come from a Dutch background.

 

Anna Bookelaar of Summerland B.C. adds this:

Hello, something is getting really twisted here, Black Peter has a black face because he is African.  Years ago when St Niklaas came to town there were not very many people of African descent around to play Black Peter so white fellows blackened their faces to play the part.

It isn't meant to be a racial slur, it is meant to represent who the helper of St Niklaas was, a Moor from Spain.  As kids we were scared of him not because of his colour but because he was said to gather up bad kids and turn them into cookies, hows that for creeping out kids? 

I am first generation Canadian but still had my kids put out their shoes on the 6th of December to get a chocolate letter and some goodies.  Please do not make an issue of Peter's skin colour, it's who he is.

 

 

Ronald Barnes of Vancouver writes about Sinterklaas being cancelled in New Westminster, B.C.:

Hello Rick,

I love the show, one of my favourites. Story in Georgia Straight today:

The Sinterklaas website carries the following message:
 

Dear fellow members of the Dutch community,
 
We regret to inform you that the Sinterklaas celebrations for 2011, at the New Westminster Quay as well as at the Holland Shopping Centre have been CANCELLED.
 
We thank you all for your input in the Zwarte Piet discussion, and we encourage the community to keep up their Sinterklaas tradition.
 
For those of you who feel this is a great loss, we agree. We too are greatly saddened by the events of the past few weeks.
 
Sincerely,
The Sinterklaas Event Organizers

 

Click "Read more" for more letters...

 Elsje de Boer of Fauquier, B.C. offers this account of the history:

With all due respect, I think all this hulabalu about Zwarte Piet (Black Pieter) is ridiculous.  Maybe people would have a different perspective if they knew a bit more about "Sinterklaas" and the legends about him.

 
Saint Nicholas, then just plain Nicolas, was the Biship of Myra in the fourth century.  He was later sainted by the Roman Catholic Church for his good deeds and his miracles.
 
One day, so the legend goes, a trader brought back three  young black boys to sell as slaves.  The butcher who needed help bought them.  As so often happens, the black boys were ridiculed and teased by the local youngsters, and the ignorant and illiterate people of the village felt very uncomfortable, associating "black" with evil, with the Devil himself.

Then, when a plague broke out, the rumor spread like wild-fire: those devil-boys had poisoned the well!  Indignantly they insisted that the butcher, who until then had been very happy with them, had to get rid of them as soon as possible.  True to his profession the butcher cut off their heads and, to make doubly sure, put them in a pickling vat and put the lid on.
 
Bishop Nicolas was well aware that the sickness had not been caused by poisoned well water, and that certainly it could not have been those little boys who had poisoned the well.  In the middle of the night he got up and went to the butcher shop.  There, he took the lid off the pickling vat, fished out the black boys, stitched their heads back on and so brought them back to life.  He then took them home where he put them  to work making food, candy and toys for the poor children in the town and undoubtedly making good Christians of them.
 
Today, these boys are still with Saint Nicholas when, on the eve of his birthday, he distributes candy and gifts.  Indeed, it is Zwarte Piet who throws candy ("pepernoten") wherever he goes, who grins at all kids and promises them presents. Zwarte Piet also fishes the gifts out of the bag he carries and hands them to the waiting children.  Of course, Zwarte Piet cannot resist taking a bit of revenge on the white kids who tortured them in Myra, and often he disguises the gifts as something else.  A child might get a bowl of rice pudding which he/she detests, only to find a  much coveted watch other small item inside, for instance.

 It is these "surprise packages" which make Sinterklaas so much fun. In the Holland where I grew up (some 60 or 70 years ago) there were virtually no black people to be found, and so the only alternative was for a white boy, and often girl, to paint their face black, wear black gloves, black stockings and long sleeves, and cover their head.  Surely today, it would be possible, especially in the Lower Mainland, to recruit a few black youngsters between the ages of 12 and 15 to act out the part of the helpers of Sinterklaas?  By no means do they symbolize slavery or subservience of Blacks.  Far from it: they symbolize the victory of Bishop Nicolas over the prejudice and fear of the people of Myra and, incidentally perhaps, the rest of the world.
 
Instead of eliminating them, let's celebrate that victory and honour those black helpers who give us so much: the Zwarte Pieten of Sinterklaas!

 

Bill Davies of Burnaby, B.C. also comments on the New Westminster event: 

I missed part of the broadcast, so I hope I am not just repeating what was already said. We have just had this exact 'controversy' arise in New Westminster, BC. The Holland Shopping Centre sponsors the arrival of Sinterklaas every year. Always accompanied by Zwarte Piet. This year, Black Peter was "deleted" from the festivities because of complaints by "Afro-Canadians". (I won't get started on hyphenated Canadians in this email.)

This was a terrible decision. It is the equivalent of not allowing Santa Claus to have reindeer because PETA complained or taking away Santa's Elves because people with dwarfism complained. Black Peter is not a slur on people with "black" skin colour. He is a much beloved part of the Dutch Christmas season tradition.

 

Travis Sanderson of Winnipeg disagrees:

Black face? Really?
This hasn't been acceptable in decades and nor should it be.

I'm sure the children DO love it. Children love all forms of pageantry and costume, but we also need to teach them why this sort of thinking is outdated and condescending to ALL people.

I understand that Europe has a poor track record historically in terms of accepting people from different regions of the planet. I also understand that it's unfair to generalize that all Europeans feel that people of non-European descent are inferior.

So, if it is in fact "harmless fun" to which no one takes personally, then I see no harm in doing away with that sort of antiquated idea all together and moving right on in to modern times.

 

Jan Triska of Ottawa disagrees with him:

Interesting story. Thank you for giving a European-Canadian a chance to express some common sense regarding these costumes and traditions.

I think there is, in fact, no real "debate" or "controversy" over whether the black Pete represents a slave or something colonial like that. The figure represents something else, namely a devil of sorts.

If you look across a swath of Western and Central Europe, especially if you've spent any amount of time there around Christams and also on the 5th of December, there is a very similar tradition in place: a Saint Nicholas (originally adapted from a historical Greek orthodox bishop, as we know) goes around and rewards but also chastises kids for their good and bad deeds, respectively.

Now, in some countries like Germany, Austria and Czech Republic, the Saint Nick figure travels with two helpers - an angel and a devil. The angel is typically a teenage girl in disguise or with a blonde wig while younger guys love playing the devil part.

The devil figure rattles a chain, carries a pitchfork at times and will give a "present' of coal, potatoes and raw onions to the kids who had been badly behaved (of course, the nasty presents are almost always balanced out by nice ones of oranges, candies and other tasty treats). When I was little, the characters used to scare the living-you-know what out of me but I also cherished the tradition because it's ultimately fun.

Now, in the Dutch tradition, the figures have been transformed and reinterpreted a bit. It's still the old Germanic take on Saint Nicholas but we see the angel absent at times (no need for an angel if Saint Nick is a force for good, in his own way) and the devil character has been watered down.

Thus, he becomes a 'black Peter'. That in itself might be a by-product of the past centuries when the society was more religious and a public celebration involving a 'devil' manifestation might have been frowned upon or seemed improper. But it's still the old duo of good/nice/cuddly/generous versus bad/rugged/scary/stingy. It's all a charming folk tale, that's all.

But these days, it seems that all the societies whose past used to involve a colonial empire and some amount of slavery (and, yes, the Dutch were probably the most brutal colonizers, worse than either English or French or Spanish), anything resembling a black guy from the 'colonies' is drawing some of the politically correct critique that's so common these days. That's just a symptom of the strange times we live in.

Cheers 

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