The informant is a Dutch immigrant to the United States in his fifties. He emigrated from the Netherlands in his thirties and lives in San Francsico. He experienced this holiday tradition every year on December 5h in the town of Lochem, with a population of 10,000 people who would gather in the market square. He told me about the tradition in a face-to-face interview. I am his son and we would practice some aspects of this tradition when I was younger, before celebrating Christmas.
Sinter Klaas would come every year, early December, he would arrive on a steam ship from Spain, he looked like santa claus, but he was slimmer, not as fat, had a long white beard. He would come and he had these svaarte pieten, black petes. It was usually women who would play them, they were often athletic and do handstands. Svaarte piet would come through the chimney, you would put your shoe out in front of the chimney, put out a carrot for Sinter klaas’ white horse, you would get a present.
There were lots of inconsistencies in the story. He would also go with his horse on the roof to deliver the presents. Where I grew up there was an actual ship that would come in with people dressed up as Sinter Klaas and svaarte piet. Svaarte piet would throw candy at everyone. One was pepernoten, these baked round things with spices, you would pick them from the floor and eat them, they weren’t packaged or anything. Later you had to do these things yourself, part of it was writing poems, teasing poems, you would lay bare someone else’s hurtful or embarrassing details. The one getting the present had to read the poem aloud and the more embarrassing the better. There would be “surprises,” – not the English meaning – which were elaborate built things. My dad built a model train after the train my sister took to school, there was some present inside. It’s not just opening the present but there’s more elaborate things going on. It needed a lot of involvement on the part of the parents. I guess people had more time in those days (laughs).
The whole svaarte piet thing… at first I really thought they were black and the relation to slavery never occurred to me. When you look back at it its kind of insane, its insane that nobody thought anything of it. There was a canal, he really came by boat. We would sing sinter klaas songs. He would come into the class at school and you would sing a lot of different songs for him.
If you were bad, they would put you in a bag, hit you with a roe (a switch, a small broom) and take you to Spain.
I think it comes from Saint Nicolas, who was a saint in Spain. He cut his mantle in half and gave it to poor people.
This was THE event for kids. Everyone in the town did it though, it was a social thing. There was always a bit of a scary aspect of it, Sinter klaas and svaarte piet. If you were not good, you would be taken to Spain! They were kind of scary, there were people dressing up as them who could have been drinking or whatever. We would sing a lot of naughty songs.
Sinter Klaas is a cherished Dutch holiday. This festival mobilizes so many different modalities (sight, smell, taste, sound) that it is hard to know where to start in terms of analysis. A big standout and controversy in recent years is the character Svaarte Piet. He is a black-faced, big-lipped caricature of a Spanish moor, and acts as the slave of Sinter Klaas, the white patriarch. The Netherlands was a substantial dealer in slaves during the expansion into the new world. This dehumanization happened partly by way of representations of the African as a jester, a helper, obedient, athletic, savage, primitive, and so on. This common representation seems to have seeped into the cherished tradition of Sinter Klaas and has been used as a justification for white people to don blackface and act out a caricature every winter. Interestingly and shockingly, this tradition continues today. It has recently come under flak from anti-racism groups as a representation and perpetuation of Dutch slavery and colonization. Svaarte Piet is largely, as we see in my informant’s experience, a way to normalize racist perceptions of Africans and instill in children a casual attitude of extreme otherization in the homogenous white community in which he grew up. My informant had thought the people in blackface were really black (he had not much experience with real black people) and thought of this whole ceremony as a normal, fun tradition, he reflects that “it’s insane that nobody thought anything of it.”
The festival had an immensely positive impact on the informant as a child. Much more excessive, dramatic, and embodied than Sinter Klaas’ American iteration Santa Claus – people would pilot a boat down the canal on which a tall figure dressed in royal red with a long curling white beard would throw out good wishes to the crowd – this tradition is very intricate and at times seems like the staging of an elaborate play. People write teasing poems to each other, parents set up ‘surprises’, elaborate constructions designed to shock and amaze the children, and actors traipse around the town throwing sweets to the people. Much less private and domestic than the American Santa Claus tradition, this celebration pours out into the streets, into the canals, and engages all generations in a communal, public celebration which works to articulate a notion of who the Dutch people are and how they are situated in relation to the rest of the world. The blatant otherization of the African is an integral part of the ceremony in this process of articulating the boundaries of the self.