Wedged in a small corner of Europe, between Belgium and Germany, a small country with less than 17 million inhabitants is dealing with breaking a steadfast tradition. On the positive side, this country is known to many of you for its tolerant and progressive thinking – for example on gay rights and policy on soft drugs. On the adverse side, The Netherlands, or more informally named Holland, also has a history not to be so particularly proud of: colonialism and slavery once made this country one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world.
Perhaps it is because of this dual history that a peculiar tradition has persisted for so many years. Every year in November a steamboat from southern Europe arrives in one of Holland’s main ports. Upon arrival, we will see a tall white man dressed in a red cape and donning a red bishop’s hat standing at the shop’s bow, waving to the expectant audience on the quayside.
Around him several of his helpers are scurrying around, frolicking, and doing acrobatics. I am referring here to the Dutch version of Santa Claus named after Saint Nicholas. By the way, people from the Netherlands are called the Dutch. I know, Netherlanders would have made more sense, but that sounds too much like Neanderthals and no-one would have taken the Dutch serious in that case.
Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, was a Greek bishop from Turkey around the turn of the 4th century known for his gifts and kindness towards children. In The Netherlands, the celebration of his name day takes place on the eve of December 6 instead of Christmas Eve. And instead of a chubby jolly fella from the North Pole, the Dutch Saint Nicholas travels from the south of Europe to hand out candy and gifts to children all across the Low Lands. Similar to Chris Cringle, Saint Nick carries a large book that informs him of each child’s rating on the naughty to nice scale.
Now here it comes, instead of elves to assist him in the production of toys, Saint Nicholas has black helpers that climb roof tops and go down chimneys to deliver toys to children’s homes. So-called “Zwarte Piet”, which translates to Black Pete, is not actually black, but he is a white man dressed up in a page outfit and painted blackface.
One politically correct explanation for Pete’s black face is because of the soot from climbing chimneys. But that does not make sense to me, because why then does he always have curly hair and bright red lips? I was born and raised in The Netherlands and when I was a child, I learned that I’d better be at my best behavior throughout the year or that otherwise Black Pete would smack me with his chimney sweep and take me back to the south of Europe in a sackcloth bag. Not a particularly positive role model representing African Dutch residents or any people of African descent for that matter.
As an attempt to resolve discord a couple of years back, you suddenly saw Yellow, Blue, and Red Pete appear. However, in my opinion that makes matters worse, because as far as I know, people with yellow, blue, and red faces do not exist and it only singles out Black Pete even more.
In recent years more and more people have voiced against this racist custom. Not in the least opposition comes from the children of the many immigrants in The Netherlands whose parents may have chosen to ignore the issue.
A response also originates from right here in Central Brooklyn. Resident Shantrelle P. Lewis is working on a film on the Dutch blackface tradition of Black Pete which will offer a more profound perspective than I would ever be able to do through this column; see blackpetethedocumentary.com for more information and to support her cause.
During most of my life, I didn’t questioned the tradition and had never considered whether this would be a good or a bad thing. It was just how things were done. Only when a friend pointed it out to me, did I come to the realization that this is insulting, degrading, and discriminatory. That might actually be the pitfall of traditions. One never really questions them, until someone, who is not of that tradition, provides a different perspective.
Of course there are many really great traditions worthy of honoring, but now I wonder if I have any right to speak to that, considering how I always related to the Saint Nicholas celebration. I will leave the questioning of other traditions up to you.
I do believe that questioning the status quo is valuable in many aspects of life. Perhaps that is something to mull over during the Holiday season. Although it’s hard to change a faulty tradition overnight, we can always start by taking a second look at our own habitual patterns and consider what else is possible.
Perhaps something new and beautiful comes out of that to start the New Year with. Happy Holidays!