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"Santa's Black Pete" letters -- Part Two

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 in the Dutch Christmas tradition.  This is Part Two of Your Dispatches about it.  Part One:   

 

Marinus R. Mellaart had a special recollection of Zwaarte Piets:

I am a immigrant to Canada from the Netherlands. When we first arrived in Canada we were unprepared for feeling of isolation we felt being separated from my mother's family, our solace was to find comfort in my father's family who all emigrated to Canada at the same time.

Our first Christmas was not the best Christmas but there was a moment that I will never forget - that was seeing the original Miracle on 34th street and Santa Claus speaking Dutch to a little orphaned Dutch girl - of course she referred to him as Sinterklaas.

My Grandfather (Opa) was not a tall man but had white hair and pale blue eyes, and was full of tradition. One of those traditions was dressing up as Sinterklaas for December 5th, but no self respecting Sinterklaas would ever go without his Zwaarte Piets! And who do you think he recruited to be those Zwaarte Piets?

Well that would be my Dad and my Uncle John. Were they black faced? No need - due to my heritage, my Father and Uncle were half Indonesian (where my Opa grew up) so black face was redundant - however they did wear bright red lipstick, and donned the traditional moor clothing. Being of mixed heritage, and living in a new country full of different cultures, racism was the last thing I thought of during Sinterklaas.

All I remember is discovering one year that it was my dad who was handing out the presents to all the Dutch and German kids in that auditorium in the Okanagan - and wondering why he couldn't pick out the best ones for me! I am sure if one analyses any tradition one can find fault, or maybe even racism - but if the nature and spirit of the tradition is all about uniting, giving, and being with family - should that not be more important?

Gary Pluim of Barrie, Ont. has a different reaction to his childhood experiences:

Dear Rick,

I listened with great interest to your episode last night about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. In our family the racial undertones of this tradition have also come up few times over the years. We grew upwith annual visits from these two figures at Christmas time, at our extended family gatherings on my father's side.

In a rented hall for a large Dutch family of over 50 members from my grandparents on down, my relatives were eager to preserve this tradition.  Staff in hand, it was one of the tall uncles who usually dressed up as Sinterklaas, and a diminutive aunt who blackened her face and toted a sack as Zwarte Piet.  They made a grand entrance, distributed the toys and sweets, and left.

As a child, unfazed, I never saw this as anything but aracial (white master--black-servant) relationship.  There was never really any indication otherwise - no chimney in the hall, no other context provided.   It was only once I was a little bit older and asked my Dutch-born parents about the details of the relationship, was assured that it had "nothing to do with race"; Zwarte Piet is black because he is a Moor, and, of course, because of the chimney situation.

The ceremony was particularly uncomfortable because our family was of mixed race. I suppose enough of the Canadian-born grandkids asked their parents about the tradition because one year my dad's Jamaican-born brother-in-law played Sinterklaas, this time opposite a non-blackened skinned aunt.

Looking back twenty-five years, I think this was a pretty progressive move, especially seeing the tradition had "nothing to do with race" to begin with. Afterwards there was no formal debrief, or synopsis by any of the elder family members. But, in some ways I think it was good that we were left to draw our own conclusions; I'm sure more than one conclusion was drawn that Christmas. It wasn't many too many more years after that that my grandparents passed away.

Since then, unfortunately, we no longer gather together during the holidays. But up until that point, we continued to meet with our growing family to celebrate and distribute gifts to the youngest generation. Although - it never really occurred to me until now - in the final years of our family celebrations, the gift giver had quietly transitioned to Santa Claus, with the help of a colourfully-dressed elf.

More letters, below -- or click "Read more"

Adrian L. (Ed) van Oosterhout writes:

It is ridiculous to even bring up the word racism in this case as far as the "Black Peters" (Zwarte Pieten) are concerned. For those uninformed individuals and organizations, here is the history of St. Nicholaas who actually hails from Spain and always arrives in Holland by boat (these days many boats to many destinations in Holland, Belgium, Northern France and wherever people from these countries have emigrated to) together with his "Zwarte Pieten".

The holy man himself is a Bishop of Spain and the helpers are called "Black Peters" because they depict the "Moors" of Spain who occupied and governed the Iberia Peninsula for some 800 years. In 1911 it was already determined that no ethnical value could be attached to the term "Moors", since over a vast period of time it was simply a term to describe many ethnicities from North-West Africa and southern Europe.

Obviously only some of these Moors were black as we understand the word today. Also little know is the fact that these is a historic connection between Holland and Spain. An 80 year war was fought between these two counties which ended in 1648 with the a Peace Treaty of Munster, Germany.

 

Rozemarijn Nyhoff of London, Ontario remembers:

As a Dutch-Canadian girl I certainly have my say about this. I grew up in The Netherlands, so I grew up with Sinterklaas and his helpers, zwarte pieten. Now I realize that the black peets have been becoming more and more an issue with people around the world. I wonder why.

As a child, the excitement grows as it gets closer and closer to November. Sinterklaas and his piets are soon to arrive and all we think about is the present, candies and the funny things the Piets do. Never does it crosses a 4 year old child why the Piets are black if this is a discrimination issue or what.

All we know is that they hand out the candies and help Sinterklaas bringing around the presents. When they come to your classroom, they make a big mess, everything is everywhere and all we do is laugh and we can't wait to meet them. Black Peets are funny, make jokes and sometimes make fun of Sinterklaas. Who wouldn't like that?

Sure we are told by our parents that if we are bad we won't get any present and we'll go back to Spain with Sinterklaas and his helpers. But really, what do we tell our kids here? If they are not nice, they won't get any presents from Santa. Manipulation all around, doesn't matter if it is with a Piet or with Santa.

I believe that it are the adults that are making the issue bigger than it is. Sinterklaas is a children's party, let it be a children's party and lets not get involved with discrimination or anything. The black on the Piets faces is easy to explain: they climb onto the roofs to put the presents through the chimney. The other thing is that they live in Spain, which is a warm country, so they sunbathe a lot. Sure it sounds iffy to grown up, but when you are 3, 4, 5 or 6, you take that answer for the truth. Sinterklaas and zwarte Pieten are awesome, I have great memories about it and even having been a black piet, I have never occurred any discrimination from kids or grown ups. In The Netherlands it is a normal part of tradition, one that should not be changed. Grown ups should be more like children. Be innocent and stop think everything through. Let kids be kids and let's enjoy the big smiles on their faces when they see Sinterklaas and his helpers!! The world would be much much better if grown ups can let go.

 

Adele Ernstrom of Sherbrooke, Quebec writes:

Dear Dispatches,

The question of racism with respect to the helpers of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is analogous to that of the Golliwog image in the U. K. where, some years ago, it was abandoned as as trademark by Robertson's preserves. Many Brits profess ignorance (wilful?) of its racist genealogy and colonialist context and their legacy in the present. Of course, it's pointless to attribute racist motives to children in their associations with the Zwarte Pieten.

What is relevant is recognition that images have a life of their own and may be carriers of a history that needs examination, as in this instance. A more than superficial understanding of historical context for the white father figure with black helpers could allow for retirement of these images.

 

Andrew Lohuis of Ottawa ("at the moment") writes:

As someone who has spent some of my childhood in the Netherlands, I didn't think it was racist at all when I was younger. I didn't realize there was any historical and racial significance until much later in my life. These sort of things are done for the kids. What kind of kid is going to draw the conclusion that since Black Peter is the mischievous black one, that they should look down upon all black people?

Historically, racism probably played a part in making Sinterklaas the nice white one and Black Peter the mean one that kidnaps you if you are bad. But I don't think anyone uses as a tool to spread racist hate. If someone can give me evidence that Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) makes kids racist, I'd fully support a change. But I don't think they see racism when they see Black Peter. Only adults do.

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