Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

6.1 Fight the Power: Zwarte Piet (The Netherlands)


Sinterclaas and Zwarte Piet.  Is it me?  Why is he kneeling?

Zwarte Piet with Sinterclaas. Why is he kneeling?

Several years ago, my husband and I were in Amsterdam for a few weeks during the holiday season.  The city had transformed itself, with twinkling lights everywhere, festive decorations adorning alleys and canalways, and even an ice skating rink in Dam Square.  (I find the city beautiful in “normal” times of the year; but at Christmas it becomes quite magical.)  And then, something strange started to pop up in the picture postcard surroundings:  men in blackface sporting elaborate Renaissance garb began appearing out of nowhere, strolling the city and giving out candy and cookies.  Who is that?  I asked my British husband, rather alarmed.  “Oh, that’s Black Pete,” he replied nonchalantly.  Like there was nothing out of the ordinary about an Al Jolsonesque Othello, complete with neck ruffles, handing out treats to citizens of the 21st Century Netherlands.  I was flummoxed.

After that, images of Black Pete (whose more proper Dutch name is “Zwarte Piet”) began materializing everywhere.  I saw him in shop windows, adorning the labels of Christmas goods, and even in the form of animatronic dolls scaling ropes in a mall atrium.  And I became a bit obsessed.  Who was this Zwarte Piet?  What did he have to do with Christmas?  And why did he look like he was performing in Cirque de Soleil?  

So I did a little research.  And I found out that in Holland, Santa as we know him is Sinterklaas–he’s a close cousin to our own Santa Claus, dressed in red, with the same bushy white beard; the only difference is that he looks a bit more like a Catholic bishop than a secular resident of  the North Pole.  And, as Dutch tradition holds it, he arrives on December 5, not December 24 (St. Nicholas’ eve, his feast day) via steamboat from Spain, where he lives throughout the year.  (And seriously, who can blame him.  Give me the Costa del Sol any day over the wastes of the Arctic.)

And accompanying Sinterclaas on the steamboat every year is Zwarte Piet, Sinterclaas’s Moorish friend/servant/companion, who partners with him on the holiday gift-giving mission.  But here’s the catch.  “Partners” is a very loose term in this case, because Sinterclaas doesn’t actually deliver any of the presents.  No; he just gets the credit.  The legwork actually falls to Zwarte Piet, who, with a few of his friends, goes roof to roof delivering goodies to the children of Holland.

Now we are told that the reason for this is that Sinterclaas is too old and frail for such activity, and also that Zwarte Piet and his friends were former chimney sweeps (hence the blackface) and thus have “experience” on rooftops and entering houses in unorthodox ways.  (Yikes!  I’m not going to touch that one.)  But I say if an American Santa can make it down a chimney in all of his rotundity, then certainly a spry and lean Dutch one can.  The Dutch are fit.

So Piet (I hope you don’t mind if I call you Piet):  I have a message for you.  It’s the same one I had after I visited The Grasshopper several years ago, when I was simultaneously fixated on your fate and finding a 24 hour pastry shop (social justice and locating munchies seemed equally important at the time):  Fight the Power.  Stand up to The Man.  Demand equal pay for equal time.  Or if that doesn’t work out, at least ask for a wardrobe change.  Because believe me, pantaloons just aren’t practical in December.


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When my husband and I lived in Belgium many years ago, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet visited my daughter on December 5 each year. Lucky girl was not forgotten by Santa either when we brought her to Ireland for Christmas. Somehow, this double whammy Christmas was unusual to say the least but Emma never objected. I wonder why!

Comment by Mary Groarke

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