Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Netherlands - Is Santa racist?


Today is St Nicholas' Day - not widely celebrated in Ireland and the UK (or even known about), but a big holiday for a lot of our European neighbours.  As it's St Nicholas Day and Christmas is almost upon us, I want to share my thoughts about Santa's Dutch origins and the controversy over Santa's helper Zwarte Piet and whether or not this tradition is racist.

I stumbled upon all of this, as I've been keeping an eye on the Dutch newspapers and picked up on an interesting headline in the Algemeen Dagblad about how the Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander has just been awarded the Zwarte Piet (or black Peter) award for spending his holidays this year in Mozambique, and not in a former Dutch colony, as tradition might dictate.  Have I been reading the newspapers in Dutch?  Well, kind of . . . . I paste the text into Google Translate, but the English version is sometimes so garbled, I find myself reading the Dutch and comparing the words by direction translation.  I must admit, the whole nature of this scandal is completely beyond my understanding - I'm sure it means something to Dutch people?

Anyway, I started researching the whole Sinterklaas (St Nicholas' Eve) tradition, about gift giving and honouring St Nicholas of Myrna (modern-day Turkey) who is the patron saint of both children and sailors (an important one for a sea-faring nation).  The whole thing is absolutely fascinating and St Nicholas was famous for saving the lives of 3 Moors (North Africans) who were sentenced to death and also 3 young girls, whose father was too poor to pay for their dowry (hence, they would have to be sold as prostitutes) - the main point being that he gave things to the innocent and protected them from harm.  I hadn't realised that our Santa Claus, was a corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas - I guess, in our tradition, Santa is from Lapland and there is no real connection with the Netherlands.  By the way, in the Dutch tradition, bad children are put in a big bag and taken back to Santa's home, which is in . . . Spain!!  C'mon guys, is that really a punishment?


The modern-day Santa Claus carries a book with the names of all the children who've been 'naughty or nice' and leaves sweets and presents around a shoe (in the Dutch tradition, a stocking in ours) that is left out for that reason.  In the Netherlands, sometime around the colonial period, Santa's helper, Zwarte Piet, appeared (or perhaps re-appeared?) on the scene.  Whether from the myth of the Moorish slaves that St Nicholas saved or, less offensively, because Zwarte Piet spends a lot of time climbing down chimneys, he most definitely has a black face - some say that he is a devil, who has been enslaved to help Santa distribute the presents (and punishments) to Dutch children, with all the echoes back to Odin and the Norse mythology, that Zwarte Piet could also represent.  There is also an interesting theory that Zwarte Piet is Spanish and his enslavement was a parody harking back to the days when the Netherlands was ruled by Spain - I guess a way of poking fun at their Spanish masters.  Also explains why sending children to Spain would have been considered a punishment, as that would have meant being sold into slavery.

Not surprisingly, with the Netherlands record of tolerance and history of colonisation, Zwarte Piet has become somewhat of a controversial figure in recent years.  As he is, effectively, Santa's slave, this depiction of racial slavery is quite upsetting to a lot of people.  Traditionalists would probably say it's a whole hoo-ha over nothing, as a foreigner I can only begin to wonder what it's all about. 

Whatever people think about Zwarte Piet, Christmas and Christmas traditions seem to be incredibly resilient to change.  Disapproving Calvinists sought to replace the traditional belief in Sinterklaas with more appropriate (read Christian) traditions, such as prayer and celebrating the birth of Christ.  I think most people realise these days that the whole Christmas tradition has a lot of suspiciously pagan rituals attached (Santa Claus, decorating and idolising trees, getting incredibly drunk!).  It's a centuries old festival, that was later appropriated by the Church in a, partly successful, effort to christianise it. 

I say, let's just enjoy it - it should be a season of goodwill to all, regardless of race or religious belief. 

Image credits:

The flag is from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free. 

The image of Zwarte Piet is from flickr user Oscar Diele, who is an online entrepreneur from Amsterdam. Thanks to Oscar for sharing this image with us through the Creative Commons License. 
Post a Comment