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.