29 November 2012

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet; Or, How to Make an American Uncomfortable Without Really Trying

Like several Western European countries, the Netherlands celebrates the 6th of December as Saint Nicolas's Day. On the eve of Saint Nicolas Day, Sinterklaas comes and leaves a little gift in the shoes of the good little children, just like the traditional story of Saint Nicholas that you may already know. Saint Nicholas is not as big a deal in the US, mostly because the tradition of Santa Claus (derived from Saint Nicholas) has been made part of the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day celebrations and the feast days of the various saints have fallen out of practice. But here in Holland, Sinterklaas is a big deal. We started noticing the switch over to the winter holiday in the middle of October with the merchandise and decorations appearing in the stores, and the momentum has just been gaining. And with that momentum we've started to learn how different Sinterklaas is from Santa Claus.

A rather blurry picture captured by phone at a recent Sinterklaas celebration.
Sinterklaas doesn't live at the North Pole. He lives in Spain. Toward the end of November, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat from Spain, riding atop his magical horse and accompanied by Zwarte Piet, his friend and assistant. Again, the arrival is a big deal - it's televised nationally. Then "Sint and Piet" hang out, traveling through the Netherlands and asking people their preferences for a cadeautje (little gift). When the evening of 5 December rolls around, Sint and Piet go from rooftop to rooftop, riding the magical horse, and pop down through the stovepipes into each home. The children have all left their shoes out by the wood stove (or electric/gas heater as the case may be) and Sint and Piet leave a little gift in the shoes of each good little girl or boy.

But here's where the differences between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus start making your average American rather uncomfortable - for lack of a word that fully describes that feeling in your stomach when you hear about the traditional story...

Piet helps Sinterklaas by carrying around a big burlap sack. You would assume that the sack is for the transport of the goodies to be left in the shoes - but you assume incorrectly, as I did. Traditionally, Sint and Piet use the burlap sack to carry naughty children back to Spain where they will be put to work. That's right - rather than receiving a lump of coal as a message that you need to start being a better person, you're put into a forced labor camp. One would think this would be absolutely terrifying for children, but they still run to Sinterklaas when they see him - maybe because they don't personally know anyone that Sinterklaas took back to Spain...

And then, there is the background story of Zwarte Piet. In medieval times when Europeans were obsessed with having light-dark/good-evil/heaven-hell juxtaposed in just about everything they did, Zwarte Piet was a demon-like spirit to balance out the saintliness of Sint Nicolaas. As Europeans were committing the atrocities of the African slave trade to Europe and the Americas, Piet was recognized as Sinterklaas's slave. About 60 years ago (roughly), as people realized how terrible that representation was, Piet was recognized as a friend and helper. In more recent years, Piet isn't necessarily of African decent, but covered in coal dust - you know, from all those chimneys that people no longer have/use... Piet is still a part of Sinterklaas celebrations. Most of the time, Piet is played by someone (or multiple someones when Sint is traveling with a group) in blackface and bright red lipstick. Yup, that's right - blackface.

So in many ways Sinterklaas and Santa Claus are similar. Both have beards, both have their own unique transportation, both wear red, and both have slave helpers from a historically stigmatized group. David Sedaris provides an entertaining summary of Sinterklaas from an American perspective, and so we leave you with that here.

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