Some Christmas traditions aren't worth keeping

Natasha Fatah on the cringe-making European tradition that is Black Peter.

If one or two things had worked out differently in our lives, my family might have settled in the Netherlands rather than in Canada.

In fact, we did live for a while in Amsterdam, in a suburb of that fantastic city, where I attended a local elementary school.

I remember one day, our teacher, a very warm young woman, asked all of us to sit in a circle as she told the story of Sinterklaas coming to Holland all the way from Spain to give treats to good boys and girls.

It all sounded so magical. As the story continued, our teacher told us about Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, as you would say in English.

Black Peter is very much alive in Europe today. Here, a Swiss artist is turned into Black Peter with the ash of burned banknotes in November 2008 as part of a symbolic penance for the financial crisis. ((Christian Hartmann/Reuters))

Peter was either Sinterklaas's buddy or his slave. It was not made entirely clear, as I recall. And he was responsible for giving bad boys and girls pieces of coal in their shoes.

If they were really bad, he was going to throw them in his burlap sack and take them back to Spain.

This, of course, put fear in the hearts of all of us little kids. Sinterklaas was tall, jolly, fair-skinned and rosy cheeked while Peter was the exact opposite — he was short, ugly and black, and wore tattered, clownish clothing.

In fact, he looked more like a monster than a man.

And being the only little kid of colour in a classroom of blond, blue-eyed little Dutch children, I thought I looked more like Peter than Sinterklaas. This was not a good feeling.

Even back then I thought it was kind of unfair that the white guy was the nice one and the dark-skinned guy was the demon.

Even more popular today

Now, I should make it absolutely clear that, in my classroom in Amsterdam, I never faced even a hint of racism or mistreatment because of my race or religion. In fact, the memory of going to school there is among my favourites.

The teachers and students were generous and always made me feel welcome, as if I were one of them. In fact, being integrated into my Montreal and Toronto schools was more challenging.

Of course I am happy that things worked out the way they did and that Canada is our home; and recently I had the opportunity to visit family members in Amsterdam, my first return during the Christmas season in 20 years.

I was eager to see how different Amsterdam at Christmas would look after all these years and — thinking about how much the world has changed in these decades, with cultural sensitivity and with Europe coming together as one unit — I thought that surely the idea of Black Peter would be a distant memory.

Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong. Black Peter is more popular than ever, it seems, and his dark face appears in the most unlikely of places.

The dark side

I would have to say that the image of Black Peter has been neutralized a bit. He looks more jolly and friendly than before. But he is everywhere.

His image is as prevalent in the Netherlands as Santa Claus or Rudolph or the reindeer are here. He's on wrapping paper, gift bags, candies, tacky sweaters and even ornaments.

In Holland, parents can buy Black Peter costumes such as these for their children to wear at Christmas. ((Chris Kayaniotes/CBC))

Black Peter costumes are sold with big afros and black face paint so that kids can dress up like him.

Sometimes, I was told, children are encouraged to don a green or blue face, instead of the politically incorrect black. But the black face is ever-present.

Even when we went grocery shopping, his face was on the mandarin oranges we bought. Kind of kills your appetite.

The Dutch, it seems, are trying to Disney-fy Black Peter. But his history and image are a negative one. In his many incarnations, he has been a slave, a servant, and even the Devil.

He is interpreted as having been Spanish, African and a Moor. He literally and figuratively represents the dark side of the holidays.

Ditch Black Peter

In my life, I feel that I owe a lot to the Dutch, and I feel the Netherlands is a wonderful country.

It was the first place where I had lived where people showed acceptance to those who were different. The Netherlands taught me about living in the Western world.

And it is with the deepest respect and admiration for this incredible nation that I make this simple request — lose Black Peter from your narrative.

If you know Dutch history, you know that this tiny country in northern Europe had at one point one of the world's most powerful navies, which allowed it to colonize and control huge sections of the globe.

From Indonesia to Sri Lanka and the Caribbean, the Dutch mastered over their dark-skinned brothers, profiting much from these conquests. That is precisely why today they should have a responsibility, at the very least, to be sensitive to certain stereotypes.

I understand that Black Peter is part of Dutch culture. But as we in the West ask the developing world to abandon offensive cultural practices, it is only fair that we ask these same things of ourselves.

Views can change. The Dutch, after all, were some of the first and most influential settlers in North America, but the notion of Black Peter has not survived here. I realize that there is a battle in Europe right now over culture and values, and that this battle is taking place almost exclusively in regard to Europe's immigrant Muslim communities.

The struggle to hold on to traditional Western values while trying to accommodate newcomers has resulted, in some cases, bitterness and anger. It has also led to a new-found power for people like Geert Wilders, the nationalistic, anti-immigration, blatantly anti-Islam politician, whose minority PW party is helping prop up the current government.

For many, Wilders has become the face of Dutch politics. But I know from my own experience that he doesn't represent the Dutch.

I think back to my grade school and my fellow students and the kindness and generosity they showed me. They were interested in my background and shared their customs with me.

They are the real representatives of the Dutch. Kind and giving, tolerant and accepting. And I am confident these Dutch people I went to school with all those years ago will also want to remove this hurtful part of European Christmas.