Racism, the United Nations, and the Dutch Saint Nicholas Tradition

Dibujo infantil que representa a San Nicolás y Zwarte Pete. Imagen de Vera de Kok en Wikimedia Commons con licencia CC by SA 3.0

A child's painting representing Saint Nicholas and Black Pete. Image by Vera de Kok on Wikimedia Commons with license CC by SA 3.0 

The children of Belgium, The Netherlands, and other European countries wait with impatience for the arrival of Saint Nicholas on December 6 because in those countries he is responsible – like Santa Claus or the Three Wise Men – for bringing them gifts if they have behaved well. But this year, the shadow of racism hangs over this beautiful tradition.

Saint Nicholas, according to an old song, arrives from Spain in a boat, and during the entire night he runs from one house to another on his donkey accompanied by his helper, Zwarter Piet (Black Pete, in Dutch) or Père Fouettard (Father lasher, in French). This character is a young black man, represented by white people with painted black faces, wigs, and clothing like the ones used in the 16th century. Zwarte Piet is the “bad guy” that hands out coal to the children who haven't been good. However, as Alix Guillard says on her blog Me in Amsterdam [FR],

Aux Pays-Bas, alors que la sévérité envers les enfants n'est plus de mise, on n'a pas abandonné ce personnage. Mais il s'est transformé en joyeux drille sympatique qui amuse les enfants, beaucoup plus que ce vieil évèque un peu trop rigide.

In The Netherlands, although severity with children is no longer admissible, they have not abandoned the character. But he has transformed into a nice, good natured urchin who amuses the children much more than that old Bishop that is perhaps too rigid.

Diverse groups have protested for years against the way in which the tradition treats Zwarte Piet, calling it racist. The black face of Zwarte Piet, doesn't have a clear origin: there are those who say he is a Moor that arrived from Spain with Saint Nicholas, others maintain that the black face is because he enters houses through the chimney, or that it also could be a reminder of slavery in the colonies, or even the Devil himself.

This year the Dutch government received a letter from the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent. In the letter, the group requested that the Dutch government respond to accusations of racism.

A member of the group, Verene Shepherd, a Jamaican, actually suggested in a radio interview a radical change for Saint Nicholas, as stated in Le Monde [FR]:

Verene Shepherd, componente del grupo que inició la polémica. Foto del blog de Arjen Wilbers

Verene Shepherd, member of the group that started the polemic. Photo from the blog of Arjen Wilbers. 

si j'habitais aux Pays-Bas, je m'opposerais à la Saint-Nicolas (…) Cela ne devrait pas exister au 21e siècle. C'est offensant et scandaleux. Après tout, quel est le problème avec le père Noël ? Pourquoi devriez-vous avoir deux ‘Santa Claus’ ?”

If I lived in The Netherlands, I would oppose the Saint Nicholas celebration. It should not exist in the 21st century. It is offensive and scandalous. After all, what is the problem with Father Christmas? Why do they have to have two “Santa Claus”?

In Belgium and Holland, these comments were interpreted as an illustration of complete ignorance of the Saint Nicholas tradition, considered the precursor to Santa Claus and a severe lack of respect to a very beloved tradition in those countries. Shepherd's weds provoked an authentic alluvium of reactions across the internet with messages like that of jicé on 7sur7.be [FR]:

Bravo Madame Verene Shepherd !!! . . Grace à une idiote comme vous, Marine Le Pen vient encore de prende 10 pts dans les sondages !!!

Bravo, Ms. Verene Shepherd! Thanks to an idiot like yourself, Marine Le Pen ends up winning 10 more points in the polls!

[Marine Le Pen is the french candidate of the Front National political part of the extreme right]

On Facebook, the page Pietitie [Dutch], launched on October 22, 2013 to defend the Zwarte Piet tradition, has about 2,200,000 “likes.” Peter Udo left the following comment [Dutch] on the page:

Berichtje voor de VN: Is er niet ergens een oorlog, hongersnood of genocide gaande waar jullie je beter druk om kunnen maken??

Note to the UN: Isn't there a war, famine, or genocide anywhere where your work is needed more?

San Nicolás, rodeado de sus ayudantes Zwarte Piet, saluda desde el barco que lo trae de España. Foto de 12Danny12 en Wikimedia Commons con licencia copyleft.

Saint Nicholas, surrounded by his helpers Zwarte Piete, waves from the boat that brought him from Spain. Photo by 12Danny12 on Wikimedia Commons with copyleft license. 

The debate runs the risk of dividing society and accuses the groups on the extreme left of taking political advantage. However, others have preferred to downplay the issue, and look for judicious reasons to maintain the tradition without offending anyone. The actor Erik van Muiswinkel, who has played the character for years, wrote in nrc.nl [Dutch]:

Zwarte Piet is een vrolijk relikwie uit racistische tijden, dat staat wel vast. (…)Ik vond het altijd wel mooi dat zo’n apert politiek incorrecte traditie, witte mensen die zich zwart schminken (…), in Nederland juist wel kon. (…) hij hoort bij Sint als Sancho Panza bij Don Quichot.

Zwarte Piete is a happy relic of racist times, certainly. (…) I always thought that it was fine that a tradition that is so politically incorrect as a white person with a face painted black (…) was possible in The Netherlands. (…) [Zwarte Piet] is with Saint Nicholas as Sancho Panza was with Don Quijote.

Barbara Woestenburg-Buijnsters left this comment [Dutch] on the Pietitie on Facebook:

Zwarte Piet is een schoorsteenveger en Sinterklaas is een Turk en ze wonen in Spanje en dat vieren wij in Nederland – het is gewoon het beste integratie feestje aller tijden!

Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweeper and San Nicolas is a Turk, living together in Spain, and that is what we celebrate in the Netherlands: The best celebration of integration that exists!

Meanwhile, the UN has settled the debate firmly disavowing the working group that created the controversy. Thus the Belgian representative to UNESCO, Marc Jacobs, expressed:

[Verene Shepherd] is nothing more than a consultant who has abused the UN name for her personal objectives in the media (…). The four signatories of the letter do not belong to a competent body of the UNESCO, they only used the letterhead, namely the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


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