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