Sinterklaas and his friend Zwarte Piet - the most beloved and contested man in the Netherlands

On Sunday, Sinterklaas arrived on his boat from Spain to kick off the holiday season in the Netherlands. While Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 6th, the name day of Saint Nicholas (patron saint of children), the man himself comes to Holland earlier for reasons I'm not so sure. What I do know is that there was a huge parade to celebrate his arrival, starting with the docking of his boat on the Amstel River and ending with a big party in Leidseplein where I happened to watch the festivities.

Who is Sinterklaas you may ask? Well, let's take a closer look.

My apologies for the blurry picture.
Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas has a long white beard and dresses in red.

Unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas' hat looks more like the pope's, his stature is much slimmer, and he has a cape. He also rides a white horse instead of a sled pulled by reindeer.

Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas rewards good children by bringing gifts.

Unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas visits children during the night of December 5th. On the morning of December 6th, children traditionally wake up to candy, and more specifically a chocolate letter of their first initial, in their shoes.

Also like the Christmas tradition, children will leave goodies for Sinterklaas before they go to bed: usually carrots and sugar cubes for his horse, a cup of coffee for the man himself and, according to Wikipedia, a beer for his helper Zwarte Piet.

Who is Zwarte Piet? Well, today Zwarte Piet is probably the most contested figure in the Netherlands.

Meet just a few of the parade's Zwarte Piets.

I was first introduced to Zwarte Piet when I read the chapter Six to Eight Black Men in David Sedaris' book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Regardless of whether you're a David Sedaris fan like myself, you should definitely check it out by either reading it or listening to it here.

What I learned from this essay is that, like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas has helpers. But unlike Santa Claus' magical elves who build toys in the North Pole, Sinterklaas' helpers are black men named Zwarte Piet. Yes, they all have the same name. And, in history, they each used to carry out only one task as they weren't known to be the smartest people.

While naughty children in the States get punished by receiving coal in their Christmas stockings, naughty children in the Netherlands may get spanked or, in earlier times, put into a bag and taken back to Spain by Zwarte Piet.

In the past, Zwarte Piet was known as a servant, saved from slavery by Sinterklaas and so happy for his freedom that he decided to stay and offer his services. Today, I'm pretty sure the word servant is no longer used, and instead Zwarte Piet is known as a helper or companion.

In yesterday's parade, there were more than 600 Zwarte Piets accompanying Sinterklaas. They walked, ran, pranced and skipped down the street while handing out candy and pepernoten (a gingerbread-like cookie) to the children. Here's a video:

I'm guessing it's easy to see why Zwarte Piet is so contested in the Netherlands. Prepared as I was for what was going to take place, seeing hundreds of people of all ages and genders dressed in blackface was still an absolute shock. As an outsider and someone completely removed from the tradition, it was very interesting to see that this racist practice is not only allowed but cherished in a culture. There were even some small children in blackface, dressed up as Zwarte Piet for the day's festivities.

A young Zwarte Piet.
Yesterday's parade came with many protesters trying to change the face of Zwarte Piet. And some changes have already been made. For example, Zwarte Piet usually wears big gold hoop earrings which were banned from this year's parade. It's a minuscule step for certain, and one that many feel is much too small, but I suppose any progress is a good thing.

What also surprised me was to see how loved Zwarte Piet is by children and adults alike. Apparently, the character speaks in poor Dutch and acts foolish, but I didn't see that. Granted I can't distinguish good Dutch from poor Dutch, but the Zwarte Piets that I saw weren't acting senseless. I mean, there were some Zwarte Piets doing acrobatics, but isn't it normal for people parading in costume to act a bit silly?

Zwarte Piet handing out pepernoten to some children.
What I did see were children dressed up like and eager to get their picture taken with one of their favorite holiday characters. I saw excitement and happiness on the faces of the observers, and in the Zwarte Piets I saw some of the most generous parade participants ever. I mean, everyone got lots of candy. Everyone.

I'm not defending the practice of dressing up as Zwarte Piet in the slightest, but I do personally know how important and magical holiday traditions can be. I mean, Santa Claus still comes to our house (I'm 29), and it's been a difficult past few years when the Easter Bunny has stopped hiding candy.

Many of the Dutch strongly defend their tradition and stand by their belief that Zwarte Piet is not perpetuating racism, but the opposition is growing stronger each year. As an article in The Economist so aptly put it, "even if a year ago [Zwarte Piet} was not a symbol of Dutch racism, he is now."

Here's hoping that the Dutch can find a way to maintain their holiday practices in a more respectful light, and soon.

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