Saint Nicholas: The Black Pete saga continues

Two white women in costume

By Hilde Jetten for

The story of Saint Nicholas as it was told to me as a child – There was a bishop, Saint Nicholas who wanted to give all children in the Netherlands a little present, in honor of his birthday every 6 December.

The story goes that he arrives in a steamboat to the Netherlands with his “Black Pete” helpers. These are minions with faces painted black with unnatural exaggerated red lips. He buys his presents and distributes them among all the children. The Saint cannot visit all those children personally, so he his “black Pete” helpers help him. In early December they arrive all together and start handing out mostly toys. The “Black Petes” were dirty because they climb down the chimneys, living rooms were reached through the chimneys without anyone seeing seeing Black Pete ‘bringing’ the toys. According to the myth, “Black Pete” took you to Spain if you have not been a good child all year. Spain was depicted as a bad place.

Sinterklass and his Zwarte Piet helpers arriving by Steamboat from Spain in the yearly ceremony

Black Petes doing the distributions to kids had a lot of power, but may not be aware of it, because St Nicholas really could not check all the children personally and they report back to St. Nicholas. This was a big stick behind the door for all parents so that the children behaved well, at least early December. So far, that’s the story of Saint Nicholas and “black Pete” as it was told to me as a child.

This is not about the story of slavery and oppression, the details of which is for another day. The myth of Black Pete has overstayed its relevance, it makes no sense in today’s world. Black Pete, a position viewed as inferior to Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) is demeaning.

It really feels unfair to be colored in this day and age and be witnessing  this tradition entrenched in slavery annually. It must be a torture.

We all live in this tiny country, the Netherlands, and we are seen by the world as a tolerant country. Let us be tolerant and accept our fellow people just as they are, not better, not worse but just like everyone is. Yes, we claim it to be ‘’our tradition’’, but I am sure there are some traditions that belong in history and museums. So yes, I think that Saint Nicholas and the black Pete debate is racist and that we should give it up. Traditions are there to be changed and adjusted to the times in which we live.

The ‘now’ is all we have here together. Let’s try to make it a better one, with respect for each other, regardless of religion, skin color or whatever.

This story was first published in 2016. The discussion on Black Pete in The Netherlands and Belgium continues to date, although many communities have accepted the criticism, some continue to cling to this outdated tradition. Al Jazeera sums it up for us here : “It seems that the winds of social change may have finally reached the shores of the Netherlands. Following years of demonstrations against Black Pete, and amid the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the controversial blackface Sinterklaas tradition has largely faded from view this year.”

Sinterklaas By Braum van der Vlugt

By Hilde Jetten for (Dec. 2016)

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia