Sinterklaas is one of the most popular celebrations in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. However, in the Netherlands (and Belgium), the tradition gained, in the past century, the character of Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas’ evil assistant. Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is merely an expression of systemic racism in the Netherlands, and as students, we must know why it is problematic. While Black Pete only stands at the tip of the iceberg, we must stand against any representations of racism. In this blog post, we dive into the origins and current-day implications of the controversial tradition.
Content Warnings: racism, anti-blackness, mention of racial violence.
Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. The festivity of Sinterklaas celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas on the 6th of December. Tradition says that on St. Nicholas' Eve (5th of December) in the Netherlands, children receive gifts. In other northern European countries, and in the south of the Netherlands, children have to wait until the morning of the 6th of December to receive their gifts. Sinterklaas is, indeed, seen as a celebration almost exclusively for children. Children’s shoes are filled with a poem or wish lists for Sinterklaas and carrots, hay, or sugar cubes for the horse on the evening of the fifth and in Belgium often a bottle of beer for Zwarte Piet and a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas are placed next to them.
The Sinterklaasfeest arose during the Middle Ages. The feast was both an occasion to help the poor, by putting money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children's shoes) and a wild feast, similar to Carnival, that often led to costumes, a "topsy-turvy" overturning of daily roles, and mass public drunkenness. Public drunkenness seems to be a default of Dutch festivities up until now, anyway.
Moving onto the 16th and 17th centuries, the newly independent Dutch Republic officially became a Protestant country and abolished public Catholic celebrations. Nevertheless, Saint Nicholas's festivity never really disappeared. In Amsterdam, where the public Saint Nicholas festivities were very popular, main events like street markets and fairs were kept alive with persons impersonating Nicholas dressed in red clothes instead of a bishop's tabard and miter. The Dutch government eventually tolerated private family celebrations of Saint Nicholas' Day.
In the 19th century, the saint emerged from hiding and the feast increasingly became secularized. The modern tradition of Sinterklaas as a children's festivity was likely confirmed with the illustrated children's book Sint-Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht ('Saint Nicholas and his servant'), written in 1850 by the teacher Jan Schenkman (1806–1863). Perhaps building on the fact that Saint Nicholas historically is the patron saint of the sailors (many churches dedicated to him have been built near harbors), Schenkman could have been inspired by the Spanish customs and ideas about the saint when he portrayed him arriving via the water in his book. Schenkman introduced the song Zie ginds komt de stoomboot ("Look over yonder, the steamboat is arriving"), which is still popular in the Netherlands.
In Schenkman's version, the medieval figures of the mock devil, which later changed to Oriental or Moorish helpers, were portrayed for the first time as Black Africans and called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
Zwarte Piet and “Blackface”
During the Sinterklaas celebration, Dutch people would put on black grease paint to impersonate the character of “Zwarte Piet”. Sinterklaas’ helper. On top of this, they would add a curly-haired black wig, big chunky hoops, red lipstick, and a “strange” accent, clearly elements meant to mock Black aesthetic features. This leads us to today - all the debates, protests, and violence. It awakens the dormant white supremacy and racism in Dutch society that usually is kept at bay during the rest of the year and explodes during the period between November and December in a very traditional passive-aggressive way.
“Black Pete is black. I cannot change that because the name is Black Pete. This is an old children’s tradition [...] and it is not Green Pete or Brown Pete, it is Black Pete so I cannot change that,” says the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte with a straight face, keeping up the good old Dutch tradition of conflict-avoidance and disregard for the racism that contaminate this country. Some say “it’s an old tradition and it should be kept that way” to which another adds “it’s too late to change it” to reach the apex then “we just wait for the old racist Dutch people to die and then the problem is solved”. Can you imagine that? As if radical and systemic ways of oppression would die with the persons and magically exolve from society and the government. To aliment the fire, even more, people call in defense of blackface that it does not represent skin color but is just the soot from the chimney. Then what about the curly dark black-haired wig they put on resembling afro hair? What about the full lips? And the hooped earrings? What is the defence on that?
Yet, what Dutch people argue for is not even historically accurate. Zwarte Piet was, as a matter of fact, written as a Black enslaved character and the blackface tradition was invented fairly recently. Though the St. Nicholas folklore has been celebrated since the Middle Ages, as mentioned before, a Black slave assistant was not involved in the tradition until 1850, when Jan Schenkman’s St Nicholas and his servant. Looking up the illustrations. it is crystal clear that Piet is represented as a Moor from Spain, carrying around Nicholas’ heavy loads. When Shenkman wrote the story, slavery in the Netherlands was 13 years away from being abolished in 1863.
The Dutch Government used the abolition of slavery as a financial issue, as former slaves had to continue working for their former owners for 10 years as a means to pay for their freedom, which the Dutch called reparation. In fact, the Dutch government was more concerned with the financial loss of the slave owners than the fate of the exploited group.
The negative portrayals of Black Pete hitting “naughty” children with a rod, putting them in the sack, and bringing them back to Spain for labour, enhances Blackphobia in children who would grow up with the bias that people of colour are evil and harmful just as Plack Pete, which in reality is just harmful to the people associated with this offensive stereotype and society as a whole.
As a personal fact from my childhood, even my grandma, who was strongly Catholic and devoted to the worshipping of saints, would threaten me saying that if I would be nice and obedient the black man would come and take me away. St. Nicholas has a lot of worshippers in Southern Italy, where I am from, which suggests to me that there must be a link between Black Pete and my grandma’s vain threats.
Beyond Dutch history, blackface was created for the purpose of mocking and dehumanizing People of Colour. Actors would use black grease paint on their shows and up until 1978 on BBC and you could still see actors wearing blackface on different occasions.
A common argument “pro” Black Pete is calling upon the innocence of children to save themselves from the shameful reality of racism and colonialist propaganda revolving around Sinterklaas. The creation of such a tradition is not innocent, it is political and shapes the reality of thousands of children who grow up with harmful biases. White and non-Black children grow up to have a mocking perspective of Black people, while for Black children this can be the start or reinforcement of societal anti-blackness which becomes internalized. Many children would call Black people around themselves “Zwarte Piet” without being admonished for it because they are children, and would even address their young peers in such a manner. It creates an unpunished systematic chain of racialised bullying, which is again not reprimanded as in the end they are just children…children who might grow up feeling ashamed of it or fighting for blackface to stay in the tradition, or worst of all, ignores the problem, while parents decide to keep their children away from school on such celebration rather than send them to grow with this stereotype that makes them feel as a source of mockery, thus implementing a feeling of inferiority to white kids.
Dutch people even claim that Black people in the Netherlands actually like the traditions… Prime Minister Rutte expressed himself on the matter like this “I can only say that my friends in the Dutch Antilles, are very happy when they have Sinterklaas because they don’t have to paint their faces”. Remember, this is the same man who, during the Covid-19 crisis said we should not worry about stocking up on toilet paper because this country had enough to shit for at least the next 10 years…
The criticism against Zwarte Piete dates back to 1945, when black workers from the Dutch colonies (Suriname, Curacao, Aruba, Bonaire) were brought here to rebuild Rotterdam after WWII. Also, when Surinam left the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1975, many Surinamese people started moving to the Netherlands to keep their Dutch passports. This is when the movement to remove Black Pete really started. Not knowing the history, many are convinced that the movement just started about 10 years ago - suddenly and abruptly. However, since the beginning of the new century, the protests grew steadily and have become increasingly more violent.
In 2011, in Dordrecht the protests gained international attention as two protesters, from an awareness campaign called Zwarte Piet is Racisme, were violently arrested. The Dutch National Ombudsman later declared that the arrest was unlawful, disproportionate in the violence, and against human rights. “What we are fighting is institutional racism approved by the government, approved by the police, approved by professionals, approved by schools, everywhere. It’s so much embedded in the whole society that it makes it very difficult to change it, and everyone is using their power to suppress us”, says one of the two protesters, Jerry Afriye (poet and human rights activist). He lost his job as a security guard following his arrest but he kept showing up to demonstrate. Jerry Afriye was violently assaulted again by the police during a protest in the city of Rotterdam. He was punched, hit with the bat, and dragged. Still, he, like many others, will not be silenced.
In 2014, in Gouda, 60 people were arrested for demonstrating away from locations that were set aside for protests, and 30 more for disturbing the public order. They were protesting against the blackface tradition. Still, in 2014, the regional court of Amsterdam declared Black Pete to be a negative stereotype of People of Color, stating that the mayor had six weeks to remove Black Pete from city celebrations. However, just a few months later, the Dutch highest administrative court overturned that ruling…just in time for the celebration.
In July 2015, a U.N. committee in Geneva called on the Dutch government to stop the portrayal of Black Pete’s character and to stop promoting stereotypes of People of Colour. A Jamaican researcher on the UN panel was met with a flurry of racist emails and threats after their statement.
A solution was found in promoting a version of Zwarte Piet that is an actual character covered in soot, without the earrings, the lipstick, and the wig. This new character is called Chimney Pete. An announcement by the organizing team of the parade in Amsterdam stated that Chimney Piet will replace all the Black Petes in 2016.
Despite the fact that the UN condemned the Netherlands for not acting against this harmful tradition, and that the Netherlands responded with promises of implementing changes, as mentioned above, the Dutch Government seems to have washed its hands of it by delegating the responsibility to municipalities. In fact, it is up to the municipalities to decide whether they will use the traditional Black Pete or the proper alternative Chimney Pete. Up to today, despite the fact that racism is liable, there seems to be no liability for those who perpetrate the obvious racist act of wearing blackface, especially when it comes from the overarching political power.
Every person with a platform who is speaking against Zwarte Piet is being met with death threats, insults, and violence. Every move away from the racist tradition has been met with resistance. It has become more and more violent, the more Dutch society is confronted with its white supremacy and racism, the more violent the backlash in defence of it becomes.
Some of the most violent protests have happened in the last two years, in the more conservative parts of the country. In 2021, protesters against Zwarte Piet were violently assaulted with olliebollen and fish waste when they attempted to protest in the conservative fishing town of Volendam. This year, on the 19th of November it was the ultra-conservative Calvinist village of Staphorst where the protesters were assaulted and intimidated by young people, some dressed as the old-fashioned Zwarte Piet. When the protesters tried to get off the highway into the village, their cars were blocked by the counter-protesters, who also threw fireworks and eggs at their cars. The accompanying surveyors of Amnesty International said that this was the worst violence they had ever encountered while participating in a protest. The aftermath of the protest led to a heated debate about the action, or rather inaction, of the police, who arrested none of the racist counterprotesters and seemed to care little for the fate of the protesters who were assaulted. The minister of justice, Dilan Yesilgoz, also did little to condemn the violent actions of the, largely white, counterprotesters, apart from emphasizing that everyone should have the right to protest freely. On the other hand, when Morrocan football hooligans wreaked havoc in Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the aftermath of their win against Belgium, Yesilgoz was quick to condemn their actions as ‘criminal behaviour’.
Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas, and the Calvinist Hypocrisy
What puzzles me is how attached Dutch people are to Sinterklaas as a figure due to his Catholic origins. Let’s put aside the imaginary character for a moment because that’s the one for the children and children did not create the problem here. The real figure of Sinterklaas is St Nicholas, a Catholic saint…a saint! What is the problem you ask? Well, the Netherlands became de facto a Calvinist country from the early 17th century onwards. Now, I will spare the detailed history lesson on the take of the Netherlands by the Calvinists, save from the fact that when the Calvinists kicked out the Catholics from city governments and society, churches were rid of all Catholic imagery and art. One of the main reasons the Calvinists detested the Catholics was their adoration for saints. As a matter of fact, they disfigured all images of saints in churches and prohibited the further creation of them. Now, doesn’t it sound tremendously hypocritical for the Dutch to defend the St. Nicholas’ festivity? After all, they might call it a children’s parade, but to those like me who have been raised in a Catholic country where saints’ parades happen every turn of the hour, well, it rings a few bells. The same bells the Calvinist reformists must have heard when they thought they were liberating the country from Catholics by suppressing their traditions and driving them out of the country. This included the feast of St. Nicholas, which Catholics in the Netherlands have celebrated since the Middle Ages. The feast was celebrated primarily in cities with large processions, communal dinners, and fairs. The latter were all banned as a result of the Calvinisation of the Netherlands, which forbade the public display of Catholic worship and traditions.
Through the centuries, the oppression towards the Catholics has extinguished and everyone is free to profess their religion. However. the modern-day Netherlands does still function according to a Calvinist calendar, which does not include days of celebrations for saints, in contrast, for instance, to Italy, a country that functions according to a Catholic calendar, which includes festive days off such as the 1st of November (All Saints Day).
The celebration of Sinterklaas, after all, ticks all the boxes of a Catholic saint parade the impersonification of the saint, the attended arrival, the procession, the devotees around him, etc.
The way in which Calvinists worked, was oppression and there you go again why it contrasts with the “liberal” propaganda so adored by this nation and with the violent responses of the conservative Calvinists who assault the anti-Zwarte Piet protesters.
To recap, Sinterklaas is a festivity for children, so everyone claims it to be. Yet, it is a strong political and social issue. To begin with, it comes from a tradition of religious oppression and persecution towards the Dutch Catholics of the 16th and 17th centuries. Still. somehow, this seems to have been forgotten. On top of that, the majority of the conservative people who violently respond to the anti-Black Pete protesters come from a Calvinist background, i.e. the majority of support for Zwarte Piet originates from conservative Calvinist villages. This is highly hypocritical that they are trying to protect a Catholic feast with the same violence and manners of oppression they used to fight the Catholics during the period of Calvinization. To all of this, what has been said above about systemic racism must be added.
Sinterklaas is a festivity for children…then what about the violence? Why something that should be full of tenderness and care for the children must be filled with hatred? Why can it not change as it changed already in the past? Beware, caring for the children also means raising them in a bias-free society, a society that does not perpetrate racism, systemic oppression, and all the violence that it brings. Educating children through positive changes is also a means to care for them. The National Children's Ombudsmen released a report stating that the Zwarte Piet tradition violates children's rights regarding equal treatment and protection from discrimination. Yet, it seems to be that adults prefer children to celebrate a festivity that goes against their rights in order to keep a harmful tradition alive, and on top of that, they claim to do it for them.
Is Celebrating Sinterklaas an Issue at All?
A short answer would be no. Yet, it is a no that comes with conditions. These conditions are to educate the children about the discourse on Sinterklaas and raise them in an anti-racism environment. No blackface, no red lips, no big-hooped earrings, and no black wig should be allowed in this celebration, in a way that resembles (mocks) Black aesthetics. Those who celebrate Sinterklaas as adults, regardless of whether they have children, should also abide by these rules. I actually believe celebrating it in such a way would break the old tradition of racism and let the new one settle in. After all, the tradition Dutch conservatives are so fond of was also considered the new one when it started. It is not written in stone, and harmful stones can be disintegrated as well. Over the years, Black Pete’s character has already changed from a violent villain, flogging bad children with a rod and carrying them off to Spain, to a loving and goofy, almost clownesque character who entertains children with his jokes and clumsiness. So if we can change his character without any issue, why is it so hard to change its appearance? The answer can only be that many Dutch people are so fond of the old racist stereotype that they have become blind to its dark past, which is still put largely under the rug of the ‘it’s a children’s feast’ argument. Yet, if it’s really a children’s feast, it should be rule number one that it’s a celebration for all children, free of any stigmatisation and discrimination. As long as we cannot ensure this, Sinterklaas remains not a children’s celebration, but an annual throwback into the Netherlands’ painful colonial past, masquerading as an ‘innocent’ tradition for white people but an unhealed scar for those of African descent.
My Sinterklaas Celebration
To the question of whether there is a perfect way to celebrate SInterklass on the 5th of December, a way that would put everyone in agreement, I don’t have an answer. However, I can tell you how my family and I celebrate it.
As a laic person, who has still been raised in a Catholic country, I turn this occasion into just another reason to celebrate friendship and enjoy the beginning of the winter season, and, I must admit, the warm lights around Groningen, are making the city look more pretty to my eyes. Celebrating Sinterklaas is also a much cozier event to me than celebrating Christmas with my original family back in Italy, which I do not always look forward to returning to.
When the 1st of December rings the doorbell, the first thing we do is put up the Christmas tree and decorate the house with candles, which often turns out to be a wrestling situation trying to avoid the cats from jumping on the tree and the dog from biting it off…take me on the word…this really happened two years ago. A little tip, if you don’t have a garden where to replant a real tree or a car to take it back to the woods, maybe a synthetic Christmas tree is the best solution, and probably the least wasteful one, my parents have been reusing the same one for more than 20 years now!
So, how do we prepare for the 5th of December? First thing first, my partner and I set up the (in)famous Whatsapp group, then we send the lottery names for the secret Santa through (insert link)...this time round we figured out how to avoid getting each other’s name, yes we learn slowly! What’s left to do is buy the gifts and prepare the food for the get-together. It’s simple, it’s cozy, and it’s about celebrating the people in our life rather than an imaginary man dressed in red.
An additional bonus, if you’re white or non-Black, is to use this moment to reflect on how you can educate yourself on anti-racism! Having said this, if you’re of course even celebrating Christian holidays at all. If not, I hope you’ve found this blog post useful.
Organizations and Accounts to Follow on Black Pete
- The Black Archives
- Kick Out Zwarte Piet (kozwartepiet)
- Different organizations on Instagram can be found, just type in: [city name] Kat Het
About the Author
Author & Editor: Francis Urciullo
Co-editor: Alexandra Alexandrova
Francis is SCDAI’s blog coordinator, copywriter, and Internal Resource Coordinator. They are a queer student at the University of Groningen, who combines their BA in English Literature with an LLB in International and European Law. Their BA thesis and research focus on linking gender theories with literature. Throughout the past years, they have been engaged in advocating for international students and underrepresented minorities at the university.
Alexandra is a 25-year-old Bulgarian Jew who comes from a family that lives between Bulgaria and Germany. She is currently finishing her Master's studies in Media, Power & Diversity in Barcelona. Throughout the last few years, she has volunteered her time in community-led social justice movements in Groningen and is also one of the co-founders of SCDAI.
"Amnesty doet aangifte van bedreiging en vernieling rond Sint-intocht Staphorst", https://nos.nl/artikel/2453176-amnesty-doet-aangifte-van-bedreiging-en-vernieling-rond-sint-intocht-staphorst.
"Politie 'kijkt ook kritisch' naar eigen handelen rond Sint-intocht Staphorst", https://nos.nl/artikel/2453302-politie-kijkt-ook-kritisch-naar-eigen-handelen-rond-sint-intocht-staphorst.
"Why blackface is still part of Dutch holidays", https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBqoH-qx-os&t=115s.