The Netherlands: A Holiday Season of Festivities, Costumes… and Racism?

Zwarte Piets in The Hague, The Netherlands, November 2010, by Flickr user Gerard Stolk (CC-BY-NC)

Zwarte Piets in The Hague, The Netherlands, November 2010, by Flickr user Gerard Stolk (CC-BY-NC)

In the winter season in The Netherlands a character named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) accompanies Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas, the original inspiration for Santa Claus) for a yearly feast that is celebrated on the evening of December 5 or morning of December 6 with sweets and presents for all good children. This traditional holiday rivals Christmas in importance.

In recent years the role of Zwarte Piet has become part of a recurring debate in The Netherlands as some citizens take offense at holiday costumes with black painted faces. The story goes that the companions of Saint Nicholas are Moors who help carry the presents brought to children when he arrives by boat from Spain.

The tradition continues to be popular, though some have been moved to protest against what they see as racist imagery. On November 12, 2011 a protester wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ (Black Pete is racism) was arrested in Dordrecht amidst accusations of police brutality. The t-shirt campaign has its own Tumblr blog with photos and a Facebook page with more than 800 followers.

The blogger at Stuff Dutch People Like wrote in 2010 about the tradition of Zwarte Piet:

You know it’s that time of the year again in Holland, when you are greeted by some Dutch person on the street, whose face is painted completely black and is sporting an afro wig, bright red lips and a ridiculous clown-like costume.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, The Hague, The Netherlands, November 2008, by Zemistor (CC-BY-ND)

Dutch graffiti artist and blogger BNE posts some photos of Zwarte Piet, and asks: Is The Dutch Holiday Of Sinterklaas’s Tradition Of “Black Pete” Racist?:


This “tradition” has evolved throughout the years, partially due to increasing protests from groups that find these depictions offensive. Nowadays, it is claimed that the Black face is due to the fact that the helpers have gone through chimneys and as a result, their faces are covered in soot. What again, nobody can clearly explain, is what kind of soot leaves such a uniform and evenly spread residue. Or worse, why these “chimney dwellers” speak in a fake accent that parodies the Black population of the Dutch former colony of Suriname.

Anthropologist and blogger Martijn de Koning of CLOSER explains in Jolly Black Servant – Tradition and Racism in the Netherlands:

I dont expect a change in this tradition very soon. It should be clear however that Black Pete is a construction, and invention that has already changed in history. The current tradition has lost many of negative connotations which is partly positive but the negative side is that this makes the racism more hidden. Nevertheless, I think this Dutch tradition lends itself perfectly for teaching young children about racism, colonialism and religion throughout history. Maybe that would be a starting point for some change in the future?

On travel website Off Track Planet, Anna Starostinetskaya gives this answer to the question, What the F*ck is Zwarte Piet?:

So is Pete a children’s tale or a racist figure? We promise no definitive answer exists. We’re not saying this tradition is not objectifying black people in a racist way and it is understandable that Americans have the strongest feelings on the topic because Zwarte Piet is visually too close to what our racist roots look like. But Americans must also realize that our own history drives us to apply what we know about our own racist past on traditions that may not have anything in common but black face paint. Although it may be racist in some way, we cannot just superimpose our own racist history atop another country’s tradition and say it’s the same. Either way, we hope a happy medium exists that doesn’t involve smurfs, midgets or complete Americanization of world traditions.

Sinterklaas arrives by boat in Arnhem

Sinterklaas arrives by boat in Arnhem, November 2011, by Bas Boerman (CC-BY-NC)

On the blog Tiger Beatdown, beneath Flavia’s post “If you protest racism during Black Face season in The Netherlands, you will be beaten up and arrested” a comment by Elfe echoes the above:

I read your post because I needed to understand why I do not find this tradition racist …The “slaves” or “helpers” are you refer to them are not ridicule: these are pages not clowns and they are wearing nice clothes, they are not parading around half naked with a bone across their nostrils like some savages (or like Josephine Baker and her banana skirt). … Like “Tintin in the Congo” the Zwarte Piets are a reminder of the past. … I know it is very insulting for Blacks in America to see White people with their face painted in black (but it took me to live in the US to understand why: a period when black were not even allowed to play their own role in theater). …Like the rappers who have decided to own the N word we can just ignore this tradition if it annoys us, personally I could not care less. Being African I don’t see the Zwarte Piets as Blacks (they don’t look like me or like any African I know) … To feel insulted by them you really need to have a really poor self-esteem. Sorry for being politically incorrect…


  • J'nelle

    While reading this article, I tried to imagine myself, a Black American, standing in the crowd watching these festivities. If I knew nothing about the early December traditions, how might I respond? Would I be angry? Would people look at me and wonder what I thought? Maybe. But then I realized something. This has nothing to do with me. It’s easy for me to be offended by it, because of the all too well known history of the USA. But as someone mentioned before, the USA is not The Netherlands or Belgium. So I had to put my emotions aside, not take it so personally, and finish the article. I certainly learned a thing or two from it; specifically about the historical presence of the Moors in the region. With that information though, I’m left with a lingering question: Are there no Black people in The Netherlands and Belgium to play Zwarte Piets? If so, what do *they* have to say about it? To me, those opinions matter more than an American girls’ miles and miles away.

  • I’m not sure if he’s racist. I’m 100% sure he’s terrifying.

  • Theodore

    J’nelle, that is sort of a difficult question,
    you see, …

    Is the nowadays common denial of the fact that in the 19th century the character was intended to be a “negro” and pretending he is just a European chimney sweep or so, racist or anti-racist? I tend to think racist, let him be who he has always been.

    If we consider that Piet started as the “negro” companion of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of innocent prisoners, in the abolitionist era, when slavery was gradually being abolished in the Atlantic World, he can be seen as a sort of an abolishment icon, an image of a free employed black person, though just like Uncle Tom, his character has been given so much negative, misunderstood and questionable “bagage”, that merely comparing somebody with him can be seen as an insult, even in court. Perhaps icons from the abolitionist era deserve recognition as such, because seeing black people equating them with racism, calling for the end of their use can be seen as an attempt to hide black history too. There can be no doubt that the character contributed somewhat to the development of goodwill for the “negro cause”, nor can there be any doubt that many whites have used this character and have described him as what they considered “a typical negro”.
    About the Moors, they did not really have a presence in the Low Countries, but they were trading partners, long standing diplomatic relationship, agreeing about freedom of religion, allies in the war against Spain and all, and the first of the Atlantic maritime powers to trade in black slaves, so Moor could be used to refer to Muslims in general, Africans in general, and to black people even if they weren’t from Africa, and the Dutch dictionary lists even “black horse”as meaning of “moor”. It’s a common name for black domestic cats as well. So in older texts, or texts using older sources it often means either Muslims, Africans or Black People, rather than the actual Moors.

    Black people playing Piet, well, that is rather an issue: First the Black part of the population is much smaller than the one in the USA, though definitely large for a European country. On the other hand, nobody can force even one of them to take up that part, slavery is abolished , remember? But even if they would do so, should they do so in black face or as themselves? Piet is considered as medium to very dark skinned, so paperbag test passing people are just like whites the wrong shade, and need to be painted black or a darker shade of brown (black is to be preferred for the sake of uniformity, and setting the character apart from regular black people). Even for people who come with the right chocolate skin colour, and lots of very black hair of a “high” number, the question to paint or not remains, there is the fitting in issue, if all the lighter colored friends use the black slap, do you want to be breaking the conformity? Do you want to be recognized by little children to whom Saint Nicholas and Piet are real, and maybe have to explain to them how you can be you and Zwarte Piet? Are you prepared to face the wrath of some black people who abhor the participation of black people in this? while others who are more of a thespian, or feel more comfotable with masks and the playing of roles see the black slap as part of the becoming of the character, who is the counterpart to the dignified Saint Nicholas, he is the smart one(or the foolish one) against the wise one, the lawyer against the judge, the young one (merely two centuries) against the old one, the modern one against the ancient one, the worldly against the ecclesiastical, the comedian against the straight man and many more, so a fun character, if played well. There is of course the issue that to some black people being asked to play the part,it feels as if they are chosen just for their color, so the organization can scratch the expense of the make-up. So even somebody fully aware of the positive points of the character, can feel like they are still not getting respect, which of course reinforces the wrath one has to face if one would do this gig recognizable.
    To this comes a huge responsibility one accepts with Piet’s beret and cape, if one happens to be recognized as a really real black person, non-black people will consider you as an expert on portraying Piet, will take mentally notes, and will imitate YOU as a master, even if you do it wrong, this seems to have caused the Surinamese accent-issue: Piet was portrayed by actual black men who spoke with a Surinamese accent because, well, they were from Surinam, so the would-be Piet-impersonators, noted “speaks wit a Surinamese accent”, tried to do that, and thus their honest attempt to play the part well with fake accent, because they weren’t from Surinam, was by some people seen as a mockery of Black Surinamese people.
    A black professional actor playing the part with his natural good looks, has a good look of throwing away all gig in child and family productionds , for the rest of the year, because children love the character and will recognize him everywhere, so it is understandable that even though there are quite some black people playing the part, but doing so without “blackface” is really brave. Asking a black person to play the part of Piet, if one is not black oneself, or even black but the wrong shade, carries the risk of being understood as a mean racist, or colorist, attack on an innocent person, and though the majority of the Dutch people will close ranks against a full attack on the character itself, there is a good chance that they will agree with the black victim in such a case. Especially because, zwarte piet, also meaning Jack of Spades, which is in a certain card game, similar to Old Maid, the “bad” card and the holder of that card, which led to the expression getting (played) the “zwarte piet” meaning:becoming the one to be blamed, oh and, “zwarte piet” if referring to black people (in a VERY broad sense of black) not employed by St. Nicholas is certainly always pejorative.

    I hope this c

  • Linda

    I’m Dutch myself and every year we get the bullshit story about racism. Racism is hate. Black Pete is loved, not hated. Many people who play the role of Black Pete are colored themselves and have a great time and don’t have ANY problems with it. You will also see many colored people in the crowds, their kids high on their shoulders yelling ‘Black PEEETE, Black PEEEETE’. If those people don’t have any problems with it and have fun with it why then are there people (mostly white) who keep yelling it’s discrimination? It’s NOT. Discrimination, racism means hate. Black Pete means love. See the difference?

    • Anna

      With all due respect, racism is a lot more complicated than just “hate.” In fact, historically some of the most egregious treatment of slaves, colonized subjects, soon-to-be-colonized peoples, etc. has been authorized by the language of “love” and concern for the welfare of those people–the “civilizing mission” of the European imperial powers in the nineteenth century, for example. The abolition of slavery was opposed on the grounds that slaves couldn’t take care of themselves and, thus, needed the “loving” protection of their masters.

      I am American, so I don’t know the history of Zwarte Piet, and I don’t know if the Netherlands has a tradition analogous to Vaudeville in the U.S. (wherein white actors wore blackface for racist comedy routines) but I can think of plenty of other examples of “fun” figures or stories that little kids just loved that are, nonetheless, now viewed as racist. We don’t watch Disney’s _Song of the South_ here anymore. That’s as it should be. The appeal to tradition makes a very bad argument in favor of holding onto racist images and stories because, after all, it was the tradition of enslaving Africans that gave birth to so many of those “lovable” images like the Mammy figure, little Black Sambo, or, I’m willing to bet, Zwarte Piet.

      • Linda

        Point is, most black people here don´t have a problem with it at all. When I was young, I was a Black Pete once too, together with many others. Half of the group already had a color of themselves. Some were from Suriname, some Indonesia. But they had just as much fun as we did. Most people complaining about Black Pete aren´t black themselves, but white. For some weird reason they are totally obsessed with something that´s so innocent. What´s next, forbidding Santa´s elfs because little people don´t like it? Why not forbid Santa because he has a white beard and people with white beards don’t like it? Just celebrate and have fun and don’t make such a fuzz over it.

      • Theodore

        Anna, you are talking about what seems to be the last country in the world to make Brer Rabbit comic strips, just a reminder. The reason you don’t watch Song of the South anymore is because Disney prevents that. And that is as it should NOT be. The movie is made in a racist time and set in a racist time, so what? Still a fairly good movie, with a rather interesting history.

        – There is a saint folks pray to so their ships come safely home, their children are safe, their marriage is good, but too when they want not guilty prisoners released. They tell multiple stories about him saving people from slavery. What do you think it means when such a saint is given a negro as companion, described as his payed assistent? In the abolition era Piet was on the side of the angels. He helped to make white people, love and admire a black man.

        The origin of Piet is unknown.
        – Nevertheless, he existed in 1850 with the name Pieter and all, but his name was not included in the booklet that would define the St.. Nicholas celebration.
        This book did mention that said Piet was black and a “knecht”, which as shown by the current English cognate “Knight”, and the archaic “wapenknecht” for soldier not suggesting quite as much servility and humbleness of position. There is a late 19th century text, which does not seem unreliable, suggesting that the character, natural haired negro, named Pieter, as sole companion existed already existed in 1828.

        -Possible origins:
        -There might just have been a black guy (or a for the occassion crossdressing black girl) in Amsterdam assisting a Saint Nicholas-impersonator for the occassion, starting at all.
        -It might have started with a white servant who became black, but as there is only one picture from around 1800 as evidence that a white servant concept did exist, and that picture is clearly a copy of a picture which has nothing to do with Saint Nicholas, so the second man had to be explained as somebody employed by Saint Nicholas. So it cannot serve as evidence of a pre-existent tradition of a companion, but it could have started one.
        -A devil companion as seen in other places in spacetime, seems rather unlikely as Saint Nicholas had already established a tradition of being alone. Pieter does not seem to have evolved as companion of St. Nicholas. The arguement that the name Zwarte Piet was already in use for the ol’ debbil ímself, is weak as this name seems to postdate the development of the character. This rather excludes the attractive option of being an anthropomorphic representation of one of Odin’s ravens too, though the resemblance to those becomes sometimes very strong in the 20th century.
        -Saint Nicholas himself was initially depicted as very dark, C-word traits , but black hair and a skin somewhere in the non-white chocolate range, based on the first pictures, Nicholas and Pieter could have been using the same rest rooms in Jim Crow-land. And uncle Remus would have greeted them, without thinking there were whites around. In the run of the centuries the whitening of St. Nick went on, after 1850 even, back then he had a brown horse, that became a schimmel (gray(or roan)), and by now his standard horse is a snow white gray, so you see that it is possible that travelers could have told something about art depicting a dark man in St. Nicholas churches), which could have been the inspiration.
        – It could have been the popular imagination’s desire for contrast.
        – He could have started as the Black Man, a chimney dwelling bogeyman used to scare children away from the fire.
        – He could have started as an abolitionist icon: Saint Nicholas Liberator with negro, makes perfect sense and the timing is right, further evidence for this seems to be lacking.
        – He could have started with older St. Nicholas customs, which included disguises, commonly blacked faces (like with Phillu 1830 Christmas, intended primarily top disguise self) which would have made black face associated with Saint Nicholas. Putting a nice hardworking negro in the black face slot, the white youngster masked with blackface was largely forced out of the celebration.
        – There was some disagreement about the name until that became universally acceptedd as Piet around 1950, however in the 40’s Piet had multiplied, so now Saint Nicholas has many black helpers, all named Piet and that, though inonnocently grown so, really has some highly unfortunate implications. Piet starts to behaving more like an executive manger now, he is becoming emancipated so to say, but keeps his old function description as it is mentioned in the most central of all Saint Nicholas songs “Zie ginds komt de stoomboot”, which forced Saint Nicholas, though communicating by e-mail nowadays to be still traveling by steam powered ship. as he did in the 19th century.

  • Vincent

    Linda, I totally agree with you. I want to suggest that Sinterklaas is removed as he represents domination at colonies by the Christian powers. He has a book in which he reads who is bad and who is good – if you are bad, you don’t get any present. Who has ever given him that power? And why don’t the black Petes have the right to write that book, but only Sinterklaas?

    So let’s rename the celebration to Black Pete’s day. I looove Zwarte Piet who gives candy (and oranges of course) to little kids who sing/scream as loud as they can, the good ones and the bad ones.

    Really, I’m serious: don’t focus on black piet who is loved by everybody, but focus on the enslaving Sinterklaas who entitles himself to be a judge and a banker.

    • Linda

      Actually we gave Sinterklaas the power and we love that tradition. My boss has the right to write some things to that I’m not allowed to do. I don’t see the difference. No kid is afraid he/she won´t be in the book, because he/she is always in there. Maybe a long time ago it started as a punishment but that time is long gone. Sinterklaas is loved by kids AND grown ups and it won’t be December without him. Kids here don’t believe in the by Coca Cola invented Santa but they do believe in Sinterklaas. People shouldn’t take it so seriously. It’s a kids party, Black Petes are loved, Sinterklaas is loved and it has nothing, but really NOTHING to do with racism, slaves, judging or whatever. It’s just a lot of fun.

  • I must say that the first time I visited the Netherlands during Sinterklaas festivities I was quite shocked to see people with their faces painted in black. Nevertheless, it is important to underline that the symbology has changed over time. It happens to a lot of symbols that survive for generations.

    I don’t think the ideas around racism should be completely discarded, though, it is a way to keep our eyes open to certain things that can easily be forgotten. A lot of traditions have their origins in no-so-great rituals and their meaning changed completely over time (For example, I wonder how many people would enjoy Xmas without the gifs, even if Jesus’ birthday story is as sweet as it has always been). I think it will be a nice idea to enjoy traditions with a little eye on how they started. It keeps analytical and critical ideas trained and healthy.

  • […] · The Netherlands: A Holiday Season of Festivities, Costumes… and Racism? […]

  • Jon

    I personally do not think that there is anything wrong with Zwarte Piet. Obviously blackface has developed racist connotations since the 19th century, but the Dutch use the blackface with no malintent. The Dutch are just abiding by the history of the holiday, and do not view anyone with the standpoint of an African race with a lower opinion, but just are staying true to the history of Sinterklaas.

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