Speculaas, pepernoten & Bisschopswijn
December 5, 2004 8:06 PM   Subscribe

Sinterklaas is coming to town. Christmas comes early for Dutch children. Or rather, Sinterklaas does, having brought his gifts this weekend. While many Anglo-American Christmas traditions owe much to marketing schemes, the Dutch attachment to mulled wine and spiced biscuits harks back to earlier times. Perhaps too much so: with ongoing racial tensions following the murder of Theo van Gogh, the annual debate over 'zwarte piet', Santa's blackfaced little helper, has been especially heated. (One advantage of artificial traditions is that they tend to avoid such messy questions.) Nevertheless, here's the motherlode of Sinterklaas links, including songs, recipes and background.
posted by holgate (25 comments total)
I've never heard of "Zwarte Piet" before and it is strange, but really not all that surprising. Outrageous and inappropriate traditions and views exist in small pockets everywhere and somehow avoid attracting criticism from the outside world. I assume that the days of Zwarte Piet are now numbered.
posted by crazy finger at 8:28 PM on December 5, 2004

Good lord, beware the popups lurking behind those links.

But what I really came here to say is that David Sedaris has a truly hysteria-inducing piece about this often referred to as Six to Eight Black Men. Completely brought down the house when I heard him read it live in DC 2 or 3 years ago. Sadly, I can't seem to get it through the Esquire.com archives, which have turned into a premium service. It's a great piece drawing attention to this weird Dutch tradition, which is odd indeed.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:30 PM on December 5, 2004

I worked as a nanny in Holland over the Christmas period once. Leaving aside the controversy of Zwarte Piet, the dutch children have a pretty good deal going on. Not only do they celebrate Sinterklaas' arrival at school and at home, receiving gifts, poems and a surprise, but they also celebrate christmas on the 25th and get loads more presents. I'm surprised the rest of the western world hasn't adopted the tradition - after all, two consumerist splurges masquerading as religious festivals are better than one...
posted by middlebean at 8:41 PM on December 5, 2004

Well the article is hardly politically correct itself. WTF is a 'Dutch Character'? That's not lefty talk!

Was slavery an example of the hypocrisy of the American character?
posted by Firas at 8:51 PM on December 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Not to deny that Zwarte Piet is a galling example of mainstream racist symbolism.
posted by Firas at 8:59 PM on December 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Last year (when I visited A'dam) I noticed that Zwarte Piet has a regurgitation problem.
posted by Rattmouth at 9:31 PM on December 5, 2004

Sinterklaas comes tomorrow because Monday, December 6th, is the feast day of St. Nicholas. Of course, if you're in Russia, you're using the Julian calendar, which runs 13 days behind, so St. Nicholas comes on December 19th.
posted by deanc at 9:46 PM on December 5, 2004

Sinterklaas has some pretty interesting companions. In Switzerland, Sinter's companion is Schmutzli who's covered with soot and lard and in France and Luxembourg, the Evil Butcher Père Fouettard tags along with Santa.
posted by obedo at 10:45 PM on December 5, 2004

(Oops, sorry about any popups. My browser blocks them.)

And deanc: Sinterklaas traditionally comes on Dec. 5th (or earlier this year, for religious families who 'keep Sunday special'). Here's a Radio Nederland piece on De Zwarte Piet for those who can read Dutch; and here's the Sedaris story [realaudio, about 25:00 in], which I wish I'd heard before, and am glad to hear now, because it's fucking hilarious. Thanks, onlyconnect.
posted by holgate at 11:03 PM on December 5, 2004

Outrageous and inappropriate traditions and views exist in small pockets everywhere and somehow avoid attracting criticism from the outside world.

Let's get off that high horse there: Zwarte Piet has nothing to do with racism: the fact that he is black is because he is a chimney sweep, not because he is of African descent. Any Dutch or Belgian child could tell you that.
posted by NekulturnY at 11:58 PM on December 5, 2004

I spent an extended Thanksgiving in the Netherlands a few years back, and the black peters really freaked me out, as they were a total shock. I had just visited the Anne Frank house and was walking back to my hotel, when I saw a cart drive by with a bunch of dudes in blackface in the back, dressed in comical costumes and holding presents. Kind of like those killer circus clown movies from the '80s. After recomposing myself, I asked a fellow on the street what the hell that was, and he gave me a quick summary of sinterklaas and the dutch christmas tradition.

They don't talk a lot, so I guess they're kind of like mimes. And if you happen to miss them on the streets, there's all sorts of holiday specials on tv where they sneak around and steal presents, or surprise kids. I took a few pictures with my digital camera of the children's shows, just to prove to people back home what I saw. I don't think I'll ever get used to it, although the dutch do try ever so hard to explain how it's not racist because they're not really black, etc, etc. It's not as bad now that I know about it, but the first time you see it, you do a double take and mumble, WTF?

On preview, NekulturnY says that they're black because they're chimney sweeps, and while that may be the root of the tradition, they sure look like caricatures of africans to me. One of the sites linked mentioned the costumes are supposed to be Moorish...
posted by beaverd at 12:10 AM on December 6, 2004

Here's an article on it. Search for "chimney" on the page, and you will find the history of Zwarte Piet. The fact that his costume appears "moorish" is because he's supposed to be a medieval Italian chimney sweep, it seems.
posted by NekulturnY at 12:25 AM on December 6, 2004

Didn't mean to sound snarky about the popups, holgate, they just caught me by surprise. The Sedaris story, btw (available here through a workaround in the Esquire.com archives, in case you can't use the audio), states that until the 1950s the zwarte piet were regularly described as slaves. ("The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.") Fwiw.
posted by onlyconnect at 12:38 AM on December 6, 2004

Having grown up in Amsterdam (but now living in NY), let me share a few thoughts on Zwarte Piet.

While I do not deny the element of racial stereotyping in Zwarte Piet being the black helper of Sinterklaas, let me say from experience that Dutch children (or at least the ones that I know) do not look down upon Zwarte Piet or consider him somehow inferior because he is black. On the contrary, children consider Zwarte Piet their friend because it is he who hands out the candy and presents, and because--in stark contrast to the stiff, stern and old Sinterklaas who does nothing but sit on his horse--Zwarte Piet is usually playful, acrobatic and funny. At the same time, Zwarte Piet can evoke a kind of awe in children because, with his black face and colorful garb, plus the fact that he usually is silent, he can be very mysterious and exotic.

An interesting question, perhaps, is at what point a tradition like that of Zwarte Piet is no longer defensible. For instance, my guess is that up until the 1960s there were not many non-white immigrants in the Netherlands, let alone many black people. One could argue, then, that up until that time the tradition of Zwarte Piet was not really "racist" because (a) to the Dutch people, black people truly were somewhat exotic and so portraying them as such was not a big deal, and (b) few people were probably offended by the stereotyping because there simply weren't many blacks living in Netherlands to be offended. As the make-up of the Dutch population has changed in recent decades, one must balance the increased offense that Zwarte Piet causes against the value, if any, of the tradition of having him visit every year.

Finally, a little more info on the Sinterklaas tradition. Sinterklaas' birthday is on December 5th, on which day he and Zwarte Piet often come to people's homes to give gifts to the children, or, if the children have been bad, to put them in a sack and take them back to Spain (which doesn't sound all that bad, really, unless you would miss your parents). However, Dutch children often get additional gifts in the days preceding December 5th because they put out their shoe in front of the fire place. They often will put a letter to Sinterklaas in their shoe, as well as a carrot for Sinterklaas' horse. I am proud to point out that Sinterklaas apparently made it to New York this year because to my great surprise I found several gifts and goodies in my shoe when I put it out a few days ago!
posted by klazmataz at 12:58 AM on December 6, 2004

The Dutch article linked to by holgate and the post by onlyconnect suggest that Zwarte Piet has evolved over time--from a cruel slave to, finally, a child's best friend--in order to adapt to a changing society and a changing set of morals. Query whether Zwarte Piet can use evolution to survive for much longer...
posted by klazmataz at 1:13 AM on December 6, 2004

holgate: the Sinterklaas feast (his birthday) is on the 6th, however you get presents on the eve of his birthday, which is the 5th.
posted by fvw at 4:02 AM on December 6, 2004

I lived in The Netherlands for three years, as a kid, and always thought that their Christmas traditions were great.

I remember that Santa and Black Peter (as we called them) was televised arriving in the country. We'd watch it on TV, and then go out into town and watch the local parade. That night, we'd go to a party. To me, it marked the beginning of Christmas. The time between the 5th and 25th, when we got to open our presents seemed to last forever.

Also, what NekulturnY said. At one point I wanted to be a chimney sweep, because I thought that I'd get first dibs on the gifts.
posted by veedubya at 4:53 AM on December 6, 2004

Sinterklaas was exported to USA to became Santa Claus. Who of course got his present looks from a succesful Coca Cola ad, lest we not forget.

The worst thing about the zwarte Piet discussion every year are the suggested alternatives: that the presents are suddenly handed out by green coloured people or even blue piets. But indeed, maybe Sinterklaas will only be helped by the Smurfs in time.
posted by ijsbrand at 5:12 AM on December 6, 2004

Our Brussels office had a Christmas party last year which included Zwarte Piet. They e-mailed photos of the party to the global CC list.

Needless to say, there was a minor freakout in HR in the States (HQ) that afternoon, including an amusing follow-up global explanatory/apology e-mail.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:58 AM on December 6, 2004

Here in Belgium, we get the actual presents on the morning of the 6th.

When I was small, Sinterklaas would actually begin on the second, or third of December. Every evening we would put our shoes in front of the fireplace with something for the horse of the Sint. Usually carrots. He must have been a very hungry horse come to think of it.
In the morning, the carrots would be gone and replaced by sweets and fruit.
It was also tradition to write a letter to the Sint with our wash list. Sometimes, the Sint would write back. It was because of this that I first started to have suspicions that my parents where behind it all. Sinterklaases handwriting looked very similar to that of my mothers.
The most important day of all was of course the morning the sixth. That was when we would receive our presents.

Zwarte piet is pretty much the equivalent of Santa's little helpers. It was only much later that I made the link with slavery. But to say that zwarte pieten are childrens best friend isn't entirely true. If you where good, you would get presents, if you where bad, you would get sticks and stones.
In secondary school where nobody believes in Sinterklaas anymore, it is still tradition that on the sixth, the sint visits all the classes with his black petes. The black petes then call all the students that have behaved badly that year to the front of the class and are told off or punished is some hilarious way.
posted by Timeless at 6:23 AM on December 6, 2004

Fascinating discussions, and it reminds me of the stories my Dutch grandmother would tell me when I was a child. I especially recall the threat of being carried off to Spain in a sack if I misbehaved (as klazmataz said, above). It's my hazy recollection that the Black Petes were of Moorish origin, and thus dark-skinned, but I can't be authoritative. Perhaps the chimney-sweep explanation was added later.

For another interpretation of the Black Pete legend, check out the DMC Zwarte Piet video, which is so hilarious (at least for those of us with Dutch grandmothers) that I nearly fell out of my chair. Speculaas for everyone!
posted by math at 8:36 AM on December 6, 2004

This reminds me of Davis Sedaris's story Six to Eight Black Men. The essay is about his discussion with a Dutch man about Christmas traditions in countries other than the US. It's a very funny story and I recommend it strongly. Sadly Esquire requires you to pay to read it on line. But it is in Sedaris's newest book, Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim.
posted by Red58 at 8:59 AM on December 6, 2004

Zwarte Piet is naughty. He does all the naughty things children (and the grown ups) love to do but don't.
Zwarte Piet is the one to bang on the door as a sign that the presents have arrived. Often followed by a hailstorm of pepernoten and sweets thrown into the livingroom.

As someone who was brought up with Santa and later with Sinterklaas, I think Sinterklaas has more appeal.
Because of the poems. The poems from Sinterklaas or from "Zwarte Piet".
Kids will get a cute poem or a strangely wrapped parcel. Adults should not be spared.

A good poem will have everything in it you'd rather forget you did/experienced/said/wanted/dated/ in the past 12 months. The best poems are evil in a way that everyone has a good laugh and the receiver at least cringes one or twice. Great fun over some good food and drink.

Pity they weren't green to start with: the " Zwarte Pieten".
posted by ginz at 11:12 AM on December 6, 2004

st nick has a lot of helpers for the naughty children. in austria he's Krampus. there is also Ruprecht and others. the austrians have an annual Krampuslauf, or running of the Krampusse, where they dress outlandishly and frighten children with sticks. fantagraphics recently put out a book of turn of last century Krampus Postcards.
posted by zombiejesus at 11:46 PM on December 6, 2004

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