…and why the Dutch can’t cope

 

In the beginning

The original Santa Claus is the less jolly  Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas) of Holland. Based loosely on the historical figure of the 4th Century Bischop of Myra (modern day Turkey) Saint Nicolas comes to the Low Countries on the 5th of December by way of Steamboat from his new home in Spain.

All good so far right?

“Delivering all those gifts all alone must be hard work?” thought primary school teacher Jan Schenkman in 1850 when he penned his childrens book “Saint Nicholas and his Servant” (Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht). This is the first printed example on record of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). Black Pete is portrayed in this book as a figure of Moorish origin with dark skin and colourful renaissance clothing. And so is he still portrayed to this day.

His function is similar (yet slightly more sinister) to the Elven-helpers of Santa Claus. Carry the bags of goodies, go down the chimney to deliver the presents to the good children… and stuff the bad children into the empty bag to be taken back to Spain. Not quite as innocent as a helpful Elf.

Ignoring the breaking and entering, kidnapping and child abuse, everything is pretty much still above board so far.

How else is this all familiar?

Riding a large white horse (Amerigo) across rooftops Sinterklaas and Black Pete deliver small gifts to the delight of small children. Good children leave out an empty shoe in the evening and wake to find small sweets in the morning. Bad children are whipped, beaten or tied in a sack to be taken back to Spain. Presumably to meet nefarious enda? But Child Slavery isn’t the problem here either…

What is the problem?

In recent times a growing discussion has swept through The Lowlands. At it’s root is the traditional face painting by adults when portraying the thousands of Black Pete’s found prancing on every street corner in November. (Somewhere along the line Black Pete became a horde). A small portion of the population would like you to believe that it is an angry horde.

On one side of the debate you have the Stop Black Pete camp that see the current use of blackface as “racist”. A glorification of The Netherlands colonial past and slavery.

On the other side you have the Black Pete Must Stay group that argues for the preservation of tradition and points to the innocence of a fantastical world created for children.

The problem for the Dutch (and to a lesser extent for Belgians) is that they are very uncomfortable at emotional driven debate. In fact, they are just downright lousy at it. Really the worst. Maybe the Danes are worse? I don’t know. Lets leave it at bad.

A sober, rational, risk-adverse and highly educated people, the Dutch can deal with an emotionally driven debate about as well as a Vulcan enjoys a surprise party.

Quite tolerant of new ideas and opinions ,the Black Pete discussion has found the Netherlands in a “deep water” that not even their world class dyke-system can protect them from.

Blinded by the Light

It is a sensitive issue. The problem is that a Calvinistic people has been broadsided by a debate that lacks all reason. This emotional discomfort has caused the entire “Black Pete” discussion to become bogged down in close-mindedness. Both sides retreating to a position of safety. The irony being that there is no threat except the spectre that haunts an unimaginative land of rational conservatives.

  • No more Black Piet at all 15%
  • Keep Black Pete (with or without changes) 85%

Frankly this discussion has devolved below an acceptable level for a country where most people are “rational” about most things most of the time.

Why some Dutch are wrong

Firstly, Black Pete is not a slave. Nor is he related to in any way to Colonialism. Given his busy work load it is safe to assume that he has never even visited Africa.

Black Pete is the “Knecht” of Sinterklas. “Knecht” can mean helper, servant, squire, assistance…etc., but it is emphatically an employee, not a slave. It is true that I don’t know if Black Pete’s salary and work benefits are in line with European regulations. One can, however, assume by his title of “Knecht” that he is a willingly employee.

Black Pete is a Spanish Moor. The Moors ruled the Iberian Penninsula for 800 years. After the re-conquest (1492) thousands of them stayed under the condition that they convert (at least nominally) to Christianity. So it is safe to assume that Black Pete is an EU citizen and a legally employed Christian tax payer to boot. Black Pete historically has nothing to do with European Colonialism. All records indicate that he has never been anywhere but Spain and The Lowlands.

The “Anti-Pete” side needs to stop with this argument. It serves only to play on emotional strings and ignores evidence.

Another emotionally charged argument is: “I find it racist!”. However, stating one’s feelings does not a valid poli-social argument make. (Yes, that is correct grammar). Do you also have a problem with Silvia Sidney’s costume in “Madam Butterfly”? Yule Brenner in “The King and I”? Johnny Depp in “The Lone Ranger”? You might. I’m not a doctor. I can’t help you with your thin-skin (no pun intended).

A recent UN study group estimates that 40 million people worldwide still live in various forms of slavery. I you want to dedicate your time and energy to abolishing slavery why don’t you invest your energy in dealing with that hard statistic instead of whining about what upsets your sensitivities.

In conclusion

At the end of the day this is a non-issue. The people who are clamouring that Black Pete must GO need to stop the whining and focus their energy on an actual problem. Pollution, gender-inequality, child sex-slavery…. pick one. There’s more than enough.

Why the rest are also wrong

Traditions change all the time. First there was no Black Pete. Then there was one loosely based on the Germanic Krampus of folklore. 160 years ago his current incarnation was “created”. Somewhere along the line he lost his foul disposition and became a jolly and beloved figure. Apparently the Christmas business is booming because these days Sinterklaas can employ hundreds of little helpers. Oddly they are all named Pete? It must be a family business?

So traditions change. Stop pretending that they are written in stone. These days Black Pete’s “Blackface” is upsetting a minority of your countrymen. What are you losing with the alternatives?

  • Pete’s of all colors?
  • Sooty-face Pete?
  • Pete’s that are racially correspond to the adult in costume?

 

  • Black Piet should stay Black 69%
  • Black Pete should be sooty 12%
  • Black Pete should be all Colors 14%

The real reason that a certain group of people is resistant to changing Black Pete’s appearance is based in other, very adult, fears:

  • Forced Social and Economic changes coming out of Brussels.
  • The feeling of losing self-rule in a growing EU.
  • A decrease of Social benefits.
  • Fears of EU immigration policies.

These are all reasonable adult concerns. They all equally should have nothing to do with your stance on Black Pete’s make-up. If you think for one second that a child cares what color Black Pete’s face is then you have taken leave of your wits. It’s when Pete stops bringing sweets and leaving Brocolli and Quinoa in your kid’s shoe that you should start caring.

In conclusion

The people resistant to change need to take a long hard look at WHY they have a stick-up-their-butt. Things change all the time. Caraval after all, was a religious fasting holiday until the early 70’s when it became 4 days of drunken sex-kittens and cowboys vomiting on each other. Traditions roll with the times if they want to survive, maybe you should too.