Tag Archives: Traditions

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.

Humboldt Broncos Bus Crash Remembrance Tradition

Context:

Informant NR was visiting family in Canada on the anniversary of a bus crash that killed 16 and injured 13 more, mostly players on the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team on April 6th, 2018. The crash was widely publicized and became a major topic in Canada. In the years since, NR says that many Canadians have started wearing hockey jerseys on the day of the crash to commemorate the dead and injured that were players on the team.

Main Piece:

“Everyone in Canada on that day wears a hockey jersey. I remember, one time we were, um, spending time with family in Hamilton, and we just happened to be in town on that day, and I remember, we did some sort of like, house tour, and this like lady who was apparently normally very fancy and like, put together, she was wearing a jersey as well., and like, she was the realtor.”

Analysis:

Hockey is a very popular sport in Canada, and the tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash really shook the population. Though there is a trend of folk speech disrespecting or making light of tragedies that are pushed as serious topics by national media, this practice moves against that trend. This may be because the victims were largely children, and because the sport of hockey acts as a uniting force for the country. The tradition is also very accessible, as many Canadians already own hockey jerseys for their preferred teams, so many do not have to purchase any additional materials to participate in the remembrance.

This national remembrance custom stands out to me because of the rising trend of insensitive or crude humor as a response to tragedy after the rise of mass media. In Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture, Peter Narvaez examines this phenomenon, illustrated for example through the internet memes surrounding the September 11th terrorist attacks. One theory he concludes with is the idea that mass media, by instructing everyone to care deeply about all major events, even those that had no connection to them, spurred an opposite reaction of humor jokes at the expense of those who suffered the tragedy. What is interesting to me is that this reaction does not seem to have happened in response to this tragedy. My analysis of this is that the victims, mostly teenaged hockey players, who had no fault in the driving accident, are very much aligned with the Canadian cultural ideal. They were generally of a privileged race and gender, and played Canada’s most popular and beloved sport. This endears them to the rest of the population, since even if they didn’t know any of the victims, they probably do know a teenage boy hockey player, or someone who used to be a teenage boy hockey player. The Canadian mass media succeeded at invoking sympathy for the victims of this tragedy because they were so relatable and emblematic of the Canadian establishment.

Festival of the Cow

Context: The subject of this interview was a student at UCSB and conducted many trips abroad while attending the school. 

“And so we were in the last throes of our stay in Kathmandu, Nepal. One day of the four guys that I went the second year as an adult advisor. So I was the advisor and there were four juniors in college with me, four males. One of the guys that was one of our students and I decided we need to see Kathmandu, the main city of Nepal, wake up. We should get up really early and like 330 in the morning one morning and go into the city and see how the city wakes up. See who gets up first, who does what in the city, how do they do it, how do they communicate, and what happens at that hour in the morning. So my friend and myself got up, and as Kathmandu was waking up that day there was a parade developing along the main part of the town. And these are really really old cities, almost medieval cities with temples and its just a gorgeous setting. People were walking through the town playing their instruments and they had animals and they all had a cow. We kept thinking, what is this? And we didn’t necessarily speak much of the language, and the people in Kathmandu didn’t speak much English. We just had to watch what they were doing. They were preparing meals and also doing things near the temples, with it obviously a festival or something. We eventually found out it was the annual festival of the cow, and they would take five or six people to get a cow and walk through the city. In the other direction, four or five other people would take a cow in the other direction. And this was the festival we stumbled upon that morning” 

Analysis: 

This piece of folklore is a long running important cultural festival in Nepal. According to Tibet Vista, a tourist site trying to attract people to come to the country, the festival is also known as Gai Jatra and “is one of the most important festivals in Nepal”. The festival takes eight days and “is mainly held by the Newar community in Kathmandu valley to commemorate the dead in the last year”. 

Jigme , Catherine. “Gai Jatra, Gai Puja, Nepal Festival of Cows.” Tibet Travel and Tours – Tibet Vista, 19 Nov. 2019, https://www.tibettravel.org/nepal-festival/gai-jatra.html. 

Crazy Towel Guy

Context: The subject of the interview is an older man who has been a fan of Duke basketball and in attendance for most of their games for the last 30 years. Additionally, the subject worked at the university. 

Text:

“Crazy towel guy is an older gentleman in his 70s who happens to have been a fan of Duke basketball for the last 50 years. And he would come to games, never ever would miss a basketball game. And everytime he would come, he would have the same seat and in the middle of the game when it looked like Duke wasn’t playing as well as they should or they were a little tired, he would grab his towel he had on his shoulder and stand up and waving the towel. What that meant to the students at Duke in the stadium, everybody would see this and start going crazy. They would raise the emotional level in that stadium from like below zero to over a hundred”. 

Analysis:

This piece of folklore is indicative of all the folklore existing within an athletic environment. Additionally, this piece of folklore goes under the category school specific folklore, the urban legends that can develop in and stay specifically within that one environment. 

Lemons for Life … or Death

Background provided by MN: MN is an individual who grew up in the Maharashtra state of India, where they learned 4 languages including Sanskrit. They recently moved to America for further education.

Context: In Maharashtra, where MN is from, it is customary for a meal to be accompanied by a slice of lemon to be used as a condiment. The lemons in India are almost circular (spherical) so the nub is hard to find unless one is paying attention.

Main Piece Transcription of interview (contains the context of particular performance and additional background information):

MN: In Indian food, you keep salt and a piece of lemon so that you can put it in anything like a curry or even rice, make it flavorful. And, so whenever you want to cut the lemon you always … you know there’s a nub (gestures to emphasize point) … on the side … you always cut it perpendicular to that. You always keep it flat and cut it like that because when someone dies in the funeral process, that’s when you cut the lemon parallel to the nub. Ummm … that’s because when you prepare a plate for the person who has died the lemon should be cut in that direction. And … like … my mother used to scold me because I didn’t pay attention, but it’s like a bad omen to cut it like this because it’s like you are invoking the dead. There’s just a fun (pause) little (even longer pause) fact that I learned that … always cutting … so like … now, I’m like … I am very like …. Always cutting like this (gestures cutting motion with hands). So on the plates for the dead, that’s when you cut the lemon with the nub.”

Me: “Can I interrupt you for a second? I just want to know, I just want to know, Do you know where your mom learned it? And do you think that’s like …only … to … um where … you’re from?”

MN: This is some item … it’s not like some book, I think. It’s like some, like knowledge that everyone knows this … it’s like. She learned it from … It’s just something that she was taught … and I was taught.

Analysis: MN is very enthusiastic about sharing their culture. I find it quite fascinating that this specific funeral right is extremely detailed. It clearly demonstrates how much thought and effort loved ones dedicate when preparing for their departed loved ones. It is also interesting because this specific ritual is not written down but rather a tradition that is passed down in MN’s culture. The specific focus on the way lemons are cut reflects on MN’s character as well because they are considerate and detail-oriented. Although cutting lemons is commonplace, the symbolism for the Maharashtrian people is extraordinary. Lemons can bring some dishes to life by providing additional flavor and the juxtaposition between zest and the loss of life is also telling of MN’s culture.