Sinterklaas is coming to town

This Saturday, Tim and I were going to meet two American friends at a museum in den Haag, but when we arrived there seemed to be a lot of people milling around outside. People with children. Children in costumes. Some children in costumes with their faces painted black. An inquiry at a bakery revealed that everyone was waiting for a parade: Sinterklaas was arriving! Museum plans were promptly ditched in favor of Sinterklaas and his entourage.

Sinterklaas is also known as Saint Nicholas, a real-life bishop from Turkey who was known for his generosity to poor children. Historical St. Nick and Santa Claus and cultural evolution have all contributed to the current interpretations of Sinterklaas. There’s no sleigh or reindeer—Sinterklaas comes from lovely Spain, where he spends the warm months of the year presumably enjoying citrus fruits. He arrives in the Netherlands by boat in November (literally: there is a televised arrival) and then visits each town in parades like the one we saw. Sinterklaas rides on a white horse and resembles a bishop. His special day is December 5, a day on which holiday gifts are traditionally exchanged after carrots are left in shoes near chimneys the night before. (Christmas, or Kerstmis, still occurs on December 25 and is more of a family/church/food/togetherness day.)

All of this is similar and yet different from our American traditions. But perhaps you are thinking: Um, Meghan, in that first paragraph, did you say something about children in blackface? Yes. Surprisingly, I did. And now we must talk about Zwarte Piet.

Two Zwarte Pieten and a Sinterklaas wait for the parade

[Staring at screen thinking how to explain this. There’s no way around it: if you’re American, this is going to be very awkward.]

Sinterklaas is aided in his holiday tour by his sidekick Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”). Zwarte Piet helps Sint out and knows who has been naughty or nice. (Apparently in days gone by, if you had been naughty, ZP might actually 1. administer punishment to you or 2. take you in his sack back to Spain.) There are so many sticky points here that it’s difficult to start.

First off, the relationship between Sinterklaas and ZP. Although current lore insists otherwise, there is an uncomfortable historical undertone of slavery. There are also caricatures of ZP that appear in store displays, and some of them to my eye are demeaning. Some sources say that yes, earlier the relationship went more in that direction, but now Sinterklaas and ZP are just partners and work together as friends. (I think this is the way modern Dutch children see it. In fact, they all want to dress up as ZP because he is more fun than Sinterklaas. There were a handful of children dressed as Sinterklaas at the parade, and dozens of ZPs.) My copy of The Holland Handbook is emphatically rosy-toned about Zwarte Piet, insisting that Piet is from the Moorish country of Spain and he is employed by the saint. And yes, when people dress up as him, they paint their faces black and wear big gold hoop earrings and black wigs. The handbook also strictly informs me that, lest I wonder otherwise, the character of Zwarte Piet does not negatively affect Dutch children’s view of black people.

As the parade began, I craned my neck to see what was coming around the corner and the very first sight was a marching band entirely in blackface. I literally gasped and turned to my American friend. “Oh my gosh. They’re all…” The band passed by (they were quite good). I squinted to see if any of them were actually dark-skinned. Nope. The parade continued and most of the participating bands, floats, and sweets-givers were dressed as Zwarte Pieten complete with full black makeup.

Picture this guy times about 200 and you have the idea of the parade.

The children lining the streets would hold out sacks and beg Zwarte Piet (any of them) to stop and give them treats. Rather than candy, cookies, oranges, and carrots were distributed. (And no, the kids did not seem disappointed by fresh produce.)

Giving out bunches of carrots

Much like at the New York Thanksgiving Day Parade, Sinterklaas brought up the rear and made a dramatic entrance on his white horse, preceded by other riders dressed like… medieval royalty?

The forty-five minute parade was an exciting spontaneous experience, and by the end I was as eager as any of the kids to see Sinterklaas arrive. The blackface thing made all four of us distinctly uncomfortable, and we talked about it for the rest of the evening: How would we explain to a Dutch person why this weirds us out so much (because though it seems a little touchy, they are not bothered by it)? What the dickens would we tell our kids?

For now, I think I’ll stick to believing in elves and flying reindeer.

And for another foreigner’s take on ZP, do check out David Sedaris’s essay “Six to Eight Black Men.”

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