Tag Archives: Dutch

Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (“Santa Claus and Black Pete” )

Background:

The informant is my father who was born and raised in the Netherlands. Siinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. One of Santa’s helpers is Black Pete, a small black child who was Santa’s helper. Representation of Black Pete in festivals and tales have come under fire in the Netherlands for accusations of racism.

Context:

The story of Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet was related to me over a phone call with my father.

Main Piece:

Dad: It’s pretty much the same as the American version of Santa Claus. Siinterklaas is based off of St.Nicholas and he has his little helper elves. Except I don’t think Siinterklaas has elves, just helpers. He has one named Black Pete, or we call him Zwarte Piet. Black Pete is a little, black boy who’s Siintreklaas’s main helper.

Me: Does he wear an elf outfit?

Dad: Uhhh, no. More like a jester’s outfit. But in the festivals and parades that used to happen throughout Losser and Utrecht, people would dress as Zwarte Piet and use makeup to paint their face black and jump around and dance. We thought nothing of it when I was a kid, growing up. Every town had a festival with Zwarte Piets. But now, of course, a lot of people are protesting against Zwarte Piet being in festivals with blackface. They’re trying to change the story to say that Zwarte Piet just has ash marks from climbing down the chimneys with Siinterklaas, so people don’t do black face but just have some ash streaks across their face.

Me: Black Pete is just like an elf, right?

Dad: He’s Santa’s main helper. He carries a big bag with gifts and treats, but also a switch to spank the children who were naughty.

Me: And do most people in the Netherlands today agree that Black Pete should be removed from festivals and parades?

Dad: No, a lot of the youths think it should be, of course, but most Dutch have grown up seeing Black Pete every year. He’s as common and important to Christmas as Santa is almost. There’s been a lot of protests happening year after year, though, so I think in the coming years more and more festivals are gonna get rid of him.

Thoughts:

This folk belief is of particular interest and relevance to me, as the tradition of Christmas festivals showcasing Black Pete has come under fire recently for being a racist depiction. While I did not grow up in the Netherlands and, therefore, cannot view this tradition through an entirely emic perspective, the phenomenon of historical bits of folk lore clashing with contemporary customs and beliefs is one that I have witnessed in the United States. Just as fiery debates arose over the removal of statues of Confederate generals, Black Pete is a question of what will triumph in the end: A culture’s tradition and history or the culture’s contemporary standards? The Christmas parade with Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is deeply engrained in most Dutch towns and cities. Most of the Netherlands’ population has grown up inoculated with the association of Zwarte Piet with the joyful and festive mood that permeates throughout the Christmas season. Zwarte Piet has existed within Dutch folklore for nearly two hundred years. To remove the portrayal of Zwarte Piet as he has been known for two centuries would be to say that the Dutch beliefs and customs are dangerously malleable, and able to be uprooted and altered in accordance with the vacillation of the general public. However, variations and evolutions are integral to folklore and the culture that produces it. When new variations are authored, they reflect the beliefs and standards of contemporary times. When a belief or tradition of the past violates those of today, especially one as severe and prevalent as racism, there must be a serious examination into whether a new variation should be created. The debate over Zwarte Piet is a hot topic every year in the Netherlands around Christmas time. There is no doubt that protests against the use of black face to depict Black Pete in festivals will continue for years to come. Many protestors look to the Dutch judicial system to make an official ruling to ban blackface in these festivals. It will be interesting to see how law and governmental authority can greatly influence the evolution of folklore.

Dutch/Tulip Festivals Supporting Schools in Redlands, California (and Related Rhyme/Song)

Informant Context:

Meryl is a descendent of Dutch immigrants who immigrated to America around the 1850s. After living in Michigan, she relocated to Redlands, California, where she attended and later taught at a school supported by the Christian Reformed Churches in the area. The school held annual Dutch/Tulip Festivals as fundraisers. Meryl participated in these festivals as a student. She went on to teach her students the associated songs, skits, etc. while working there.

The interviewer spoke with Meryl over the phone.

Transcript:

MERYL: So I grew up in Redlands—Redlands Christian School, attended um… Christian Reformed Church is where I—was where my parents went, and in Redlands there are two Christian Reformed Churches, one Reformed Church, and one Protestant Reformed Church, which is a little more on the Dutch, th—Dutch side. Uh, the Protestant Church also had a school. And so… Redlands… and I went to the Christian School there, and… all supported Red— of all those churches, the four churches, uh… supported the Redlands Christian School. Still do. And there were many Dutch background people, so they, um… in order to support the school they started having—I don’t know just when it started, but—uh, started having Dutch festivals. And I remember, uh, singing little songs, and… heh… at the, at the Dutch festivals. Um… and then, later I taught ‘em to… to… th—the kids that I was teaching. [rustles pages, reading] Um… many… let’s see… many Dutch background people had Tu—Tulip festivals to raise money for the school. ‘Cause they… [unintelligible] always need money. Um…

INTERVIEWER: What would the songs be about? 

MERYEL: Well, let’s see… Well, first of all they had all the… the chorale—you know, they’re kind of like *chorale*—they’re [unintelligible] you know, half notes. [rustles pages] And uh… other songs. But it… the for Tulip Festival. I taught my kids this one little ditty that… [begins laughing] Heh-heh! It was—let’s see, it was… [begins speaking in rhythm (no melody), puts on an accent (t’s and th’s become d’s)]

“Katrina, my darling,

Come sit by my side 

And I’ll told you some things 

That will open your eyes—eyes [unintelligible]

I love you so much 

[Bette(?)]… w—with the love that I got,

That I want… and I’m going to ask you, “Won’t you be my *frau*?”

Frau is like… um, [unintelligible]. She would sing—the girl would sing: [resumes]

Why [seen(?)] yourself, Charlie 

To speak out like that 

Although it is nice what you say, 

And I love you so much with the love that I got

That I’ll be your frau right away.

Oh, ja! [thought that was(?)] fine, 

Char—Katrina, she told me she’s going to be mine… 

And, you know, that’s the chorus. Yeah, heh—*anyway*… and the kids would sing. I taught that to my… my 4th graders later. Um… anyway… 

INTERVIEWER: Did you teach at the same school?

MERYL: Uh, yeah, I’m getting to that. [laughs] Y—Y—let’s see… [if(?)] I can read it [reading] all—so all these churches, these four churches, supported the Redlands Christian School. Many Dutch background people… uh… had, had decided to have a Tulip Festival to bring in money for the school, ‘cause the schools always need money. And uh… so they, uh, they… the *women* mainly, got together [laughs softly], And um… k—kinda started when, when I was in school there. And it’s been kind of a tradition. And later, um… it was still going on when I taught there. Um… they had um… they had uh, uh… dishes of, *food* dishes, and cookies, and all kinds of stuff that was Dutch, and the kids would dress up, or… in uh, long skirts and wear, uh, Dutch—gif you had Dutch shoes, the wooden shoes…

INTERVIEWER: Clogs?

MERYL: [Me and(?)] my parents, they sent for some Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they have… uh, and Holland, Michigan, where they have more Tulip Festivals and… a lot of tulips in Holland. 

INTERVIEWER: Right, so… that’s what I was going to ask. So this specific one that you’re talking about is just the Redlands one, but I was…

MERYL: [Yes(?)]

INTERVIEWER: I was going to ask you are there other ones? 

MERYL: Oh, [yeah(?)]

INTERVIEWER: Other Tulip Festivals around the US? And it sounds like Holland Michigan, there are…

MERYL: Yeah, yeah… and [El Far(?)] California, they have a—a lot of Dutchman there too. 

INTERVIEWER: And they have similar festivals and everything.

MERYL: Yes. The Christian schools do.

INTERVIEWER: But this one was… 

MERYL: Yeah, they… they kind of support the Dutch background. 

INTERVIEWER: Oh, so—so it’s always attached to a school, it sounds like? It’s less of like… like a… 

MERYL: Yeah, it’s—it’s mainly I th—uh, yeah it kind of supports the schools. Helps to support the schools. Uh… Dutch costumes, [rustles papers] and wooden shoes… the wooden shoes are very uncomfortable.

INTERVIEWER: [laughs]

MERYL: You wear about three pairs of socks inside ‘em just so… so you don’t get blisters. I had some. I don’t know where they went. Heh-heh… 

INTERVIEWER: [joins laughing]

MERYL: *Anyway*… 

Informant Commentary:

Meryl mainly connected these festivals to the religious and educational institutions they supported financially. The generations through which this folk practice is passed are not familial generations or ethnic ones, but rather teacher to student generations. Meryl occupied both of those roles, as a student who later became a teacher. The Dutch/Tulip Festivals are also sites of other folklore such as folk songs and folk food, similarly passed down using highly intentional means, for a specific purpose, in a designated classroom setting.

Analysis:

This tradition is an interesting one, mainly because it employs folklore as a means to fundraise for an institution. This conflicts with the usual role of folklore as a set of artistic practices coming into being and perpetuating outside of institutions. The folklore invoked by these festivals (clogs, traditional dress, songs, etc.) likely came about that way too, but were given a new purpose and a new folk group by these majority Dutch churches and schools.

Oliebollen

Context:

NS, my father, is a 55-year-old Dutch immigrant to the US. He grew up in the small town of Delft. He told me about this new year’s eve food tradition that is observed where he grew up.

Text:

NS: New years is one of the most important holidays for the Dutch. On new years’ eve, we would gather together, there would be on the TV a comedian doing a run-down of the year, and we would have oliebollen (oil balls). They are a food you only eat during new years and you can get them from a stand on the street in late December. My mom used to make them. To make them, you put some flour and yeast together in a bowl with some sugar to let the mixture rise. Then you add all kinds of stuff in it: nuts, apple, raisins, cranberries, other dried fruits. You plop them into balls and fry them in oil. Then once you’re done you can put some powdered sugar on them.

Thoughts:

The informant, even though he now lives in San Francisco, makes this treat every year as a member of a global nationality. He likes oliebollen because he associates the taste with childhood memories and festivities. He told me that the new year is one of the most important and elaborate celebrations for the Dutch, so it makes sense that he wants to keep this foodway alive as he carries out his identity as a Dutch-American. I have eaten them every new year as well, the informant is my dad, and I have to say that the taste definitely reminds me of that particular time. Since they are only consumed once a year for this event, they take on a special significance and anticipation which leads me to savor each bite when I get the chance. The food tradition is a way for my dad to keep his sense of Dutch-ness alive as he lives abroad in a foreign land.

Pannenkouken

Context:

Pannenkoeken (pun-nĕ-koo-ken) are a traditional Dutch meal. They are large and flat pancakes with the thinness of crepes. In my family, we enjoy them for dinner on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. I collected this piece from my father, who emigrated to the US from the Netherlands as an adult and grew up in the town of Delft. I asked him to show me how to make the recipe one night at our home in San Francisco.

Text:

NS: “Alright first you start by putting on some vegetable soup, I do some bouillon cubes and whatever vegetables you have lying around. Then you start the pannenkoeken by putting flour in a big bowl.

JS: “how much flour do you use?”

NS: “Just some flower, as much as you want. (laughs) and some salt. mix it up a bit to get rid of the clumps… there, perfect! Then crack an egg into it and mix it up, add two eggs or so mixing in between.”

JS: (I add three eggs absentmindedly)

NS: “Haha, perfect, you want to get it nicely mixed… then add some milk gradually. You want to mix it all the while so that it stays smooth.”

(I mix vigorously, adding milk little by little until we have a soupy batter)

NS: “Then we heat up the pan. You want to move the bowl over here near the stove. Rub butter around in the pan and then pour in a spoonful of the batter, and you want to start moving the pan to spread the batter almost as soon as you start pouring.”

(I pour in the batter. the pan is not hot enough, so the batter just sits at the bottom.)

NS: “Ok yeah we tried a little too soon. Just wait until the pan heats up a bit.”

He puts a plate on top of the simmering pot of soup and explains that this is where we will put the finished pannenkoeken to stay hot. I pour more batter once the pan is hotter and then tilt the pan back and forth to spread the runny batter all the way around the pan. This takes some practice, but I eventually work out a way to make nice, even, golden brown pannenkoeken and set them on the plate. My dad shows me how to fill the last few with Gouda cheese and fold them over on top of each other. I heft the pot of soup along with the full plate on top and set it on the dinner table. We eat the soup first and then start on the cheese pancakes, topping them with cumin and nutmeg. They are rich and creamy. We then set ourselves upon the “sweet” pancakes underneath, topping them with maple syrup, brown sugar, walnut pieces, and cinnamon. In the past, we have used berries and Nutella as well. I ask my dad where he learned this recipe and what it means for him.

NS: “My mom used to make them for the family, it was always an exciting treat for the kids. I like them, sometimes I just get the craving.”

JS: “Are there any differences between the way you make them and the way your mom used to make them?”

NS: “No not really. The soup is essentially the same and the batter too. The one thing I changed was folding them over onto the cheese, putting it in the middle. I think my mom put the cheese on top. That was my contribution to the tradition. (laughs)”

Thoughts:

Eating pannenkoeken is one of the cherished traditions in my household. It is one of the few Dutch recipes that we continue to perform. A recently naturalized US citizen, this piece of folklore helps my dad to remember his family from the country from which he emigrated, many of whom have since passed away and some of whom he keeps in touch with long-distance. The environment in which he grew up, the small town of Delft, is radically different from the American city of San Francisco, and I think traditions like these help him to maintain his sense of identity as an expatriate. For me, who grew up in San Francisco, this tradition gives me a sense of my dad’s history as well as my own Dutch heritage, a means of holding on to what makes one special in a country of immigrants from all over the world. The task of making the pannenkoeken requires some practice, and while the recipe is simple and often approximated, one must have a feeling for how the batter flows, what temperature the pan should be, how to store the finished cakes so that they stay hot, when to add butter, and how much batter to add per pannekoek. The process is like an elaborate choreography in the kitchen so it feels much more special to make them well since doing so requires practice and instruction. The differences between my dad’s and his mother’s pannenkoeken are dependent on the available ingredients: my dad might make the soup differently, and my grandmother might have used different kinds of cheese and, as my dad mentions, a different technique for making the cheese pancakes The cheese we use at home is imported from Holland.

Food has an intimate relation with memory and identity. What we consume is what we are made up of, and tastes can connect us intimately to a community and way of life. Making pennenkoeken is one way my father retains his identity as a Dutch-American immigrant, and a way in which he transmits this identity to his American-raised children, passing down a memory of warm family dinners.

Sinter Klaas

Context:

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.

Text:

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.

Thoughts:

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.