A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, men, women and anything in between on the jury, it is my very warm pleasure to be writing here today on a subject that is dear to my heart and its associated cockles: Zwarte Piet. Although others have both mentioned this Dutch peculiarity in the wider context of the Sinterklass festival, I feel little has been done to truly acknowledge Zwarte Piet, and his amazing uniqueness among Christmas traditions worldwide.
This character, which in our Anglo-American Christmas tradition comprises a series of ‘elves’, helps out Sinterklaas, a.k.a. ‘Sint Nikolaas’, ‘Father Christmas’ (‘Santa’ for Americans) with the apparently arduous task of giving out sweets and gifts to Lord-abiding children. He dresses like a harlequin, plays music, sometimes hugs and takes photos with kids and causes more public myrrhth and merriment in Holland that an octogenarian on a horse could stir up in thousands of years… trust him, he’s tried. Piet’s funny, he’s happy, he’s likeable, he does Gangnam style, just about everything you’d want in a Christmas character. It is no wonder then, that a group of activists, otherwise known as massive Dutch party-poopers, were arrested last year for campaigning against Piet. Christmas is a time of sharing, we know, but those kind of opinions can wait for February at least.
“OK Eric”, you say, “We know about elves or whoever this Dutch Piet character is. We know that Santa couldn’t do all the work by himself. Why should we care? I mean, have you seen all the kids around these days? They’re freakin’ everywhere! And jolly old St. Nick’s not getting any younger either… for the love of God, let him have his helpers! We would offer to give him a hand ourselves for heaven’s sake, but we’re too busy shopping. Look, as long as they’re good, solid workers, and they abide by the relevant health and safety regulations, let them go for their lives! Who are we to stop Piet from doing his thing? Nobodies we say! Nobodies at all!”.
But if you’ll kindly excuse the pun (you may not) my friends, there is indeed a much darker side to this story, and one which outrages International Students in Leiden, Dutch liberals, and people all over the world. The problem is less about Zwarte Piet’s function, but about his appearance. Shortly put, he resembles a vaudevillian blackface character, completely covered on hands and face with makeup to resemble the complexion of an ethnic West African, which the legend implies, is his racial background. In the streets of Leiden, about a hundred Piets lined up to enjoy and participate in the parade of Sinterklaas, including marching band made up of Piets, Piets climbing on signposts, and sundry other Piets. The festival is massive and awesome, bizarre and unique. Continuing the tradition, children are decked out in Piet gear, many also wearing blackface makeup.
This outrages some, and is clearly a perfectly acceptable norm for others. That the streets are so full with people celebrating is a clear sign that the case against Piet strangely has few active supporters. Those who dress as Piet certainly have no qualms, I even got a photo with a Piet, he was almost as happy as I was! But there are serious questions for Dutch society in all this. Does it send the wrong message about race relations? Is Piet a ‘subordinate’ that enables racial generalisations? It is not easy to quantify or qualify Piet’s impact on racial perceptions in Dutch society, but the government seem to think it’s a good idea. As mentioned, arrests for protesting against Zwarte Piet have been made, an indication that it’s all good in The Hague. All I know and all I saw was people having fun and being silly. If someone saw anything else, please contact me immediately.
At the end of the carnival the participants doubtlessly go back to their showers, and drains across the city surely fill with endless quantities of dark facepaint. Plumbers probably do very well from Sinterklaas indeed. But while they lather up, do the Dutch wonder about the meaning of all this? Probably not. They’re probably too full of pepernoten or worse, dreaming about next year’s hijinx already. The next day, Leiden will be the same wonderful city that has thrown up another bizarre question for cross-culturalists far and wide. I don’t know exactly how to put it, but there is a certain and undeniable charm in these antiquated ceremonies, as offensive as they may be to our (hypersensitive) modern worldview. Part of me wants to say it is wrong, part of me wants to say it is right, and part of me just wants to get my Christmas shopping done.
As the sayings go, you have to see it to believe it, and it’s all just a bit of fun…