Anyone who laments the creeping commercialization of Christmas need only visit the Netherlands. It’s not so much that there aren’t holiday decorations sprouting up in store windows by mid-November — there are — it’s that there’s a legitimate cultural excuse for it. Traditionally, Christmas takes a back seat to the feast day of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas as he’s known over here. (An aside, the Dutch have the wonderful habit of celebrating holidays twice. The day after Christmas is, appropriately enough, Second Christmas, and is also a holiday. If that’s part and parcel of a progressive society, I say bring it on!)
The feast of St. Nick is December 5th, and involves the traditional gift-giving most Americans associate with Christmas. Sinterklaas actually “arrives” a couple weeks prior, and spends his time meeting with kids around the country. He’ll be hitting Leiden this weekend, in fact. SK isn’t into flying forest fauna, so he gets around by steam boat and landbound horse. Like his SC counterpart, part of his job is separating the naughty from the nice and reminding people why dressing in red from head to toe is a bad idea.
All this is fairly harmless. The two cultural icons diverge somewhat, however, when they come to their duly appointed assistants. While Santa’s helpers are rather vaguely labeled as elves, the Dutch give their mythology a distinctly more historical flavor. Sinterklaas has a passel of helpers, and like George Foreman’s children, they all have the same name: Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”). As you may have guessed, the Piets are, well, black. Or rather, they’re Moors.
I have to admit, and let me allow for all the appropriate qualifiers — this is my opinion, born of my own experiences and strongly influenced by the culture I was raised in — Zwarte Piet makes me extremely uncomfortable. No, it’s more than that; Zwarte Piet strikes me as obviously racist. He looks like Stepin Fetchit but in blackface and with puffy pants. In cartoon form, he often looks disturbingly like a monkey. In a country so open, so tolerant, so liberal, he is, to my eyes, an incredibly dischordant image.
The fact that I cite blackface and old American minstrel shows underscores the subtlety of the issue. These, of course, aren’t cultural milestones in the Netherlands. Presumably, most Dutch people see Piet and think of cold December days, holiday songs, and time with the family. He has positive associations that are completely absent for me. And yet I have the impression that they, too, struggle to reconcile the imagery of Piet with the rest of their society’s social leanings. It’s now often claimed that Piet is black only because he’s dirty from sliding down the chimney. A few years ago, Piet became not only Black but Red and Green and Purple and Blue, but Rainbow Piet seems not to have gone over so well. Now he’s just black again.
Mythology is a funny thing. It can be reinterpreted or changed, but it has a certain staying power. It seems fairly certain to me that Piet has racist origins. In the Austrian Christmas myth, for example, many of the same tasks Piet fulfills fall to the Krampus, a devil-like figure. Today, partly through the gradual evolution of societal views and partly through conscious rewriting, Piet has been stripped of most of his more negative connotations. Does this — forgive me — whitewashing of his image mean that, whatever negatives he once represented, he should today be taken at face value? (And who decides what that is?) Or is it impossible to separate him from his origins? I’ve had several (white) Dutch colleagues tell me, and I paraphrase, No one sees Piet as racist, and the immigrants don’t mind. I cringe when I hear that. I’m not aware of any significant anti-Piet movement within the society, it’s true, but I suspect the day will come when the Dutch aren’t so proud of this particular tradition.
On a lighter note, David Sedaris has already tried to explain all this, and has naturally done a far better job than I can. Here’s his take on “Six to Eight Black Men.”