Updated: Feb 3
Written by Markus, with Photos by Markus
From Wikipedia - The feast of Sinterklaas celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December. The feast is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on St. Nicholas' Eve (5 December) in the Netherlands and on the morning of 6 December, Saint Nicholas Day, Belgium, Luxembourg, western Germany, northern France (French Flanders, Lorraine, Alsace and Artois), and Hungary.
Sinterklaas has arrived in the Netherlands on his boat, with his horse and his helpers. And as I live on the main shopping street in Dordrecht, his arrival festivities (for Dordrecht) took place right in front of my door. My daughter, who grew up in Singapore, was wondering what this was all about. She has googled it, but found mostly controversy about Sinterklaas. “So what’s up with this?”, she asked.
When I was young, up to around 10 years old, Sinterklaas was the main festive day of the year, perhaps aside new-year’s eve as the latter means staying up late..
Sinterklaas lives in Spain and once a year he comes to the Netherlands by boat, together with his helpers and his horse. And of course, with many gifts for the children of the Netherlands (and Belgium).
Starting 11-11 kids can every day put their shoe in front of the door, together with a carrot. The next morning, the carrot would be gone as Sinterklaas’ horse has eaten it, and Sinterklaas left a small gift behind. This every day up to December 5th, as on that evening Sinterklaas bangs loudly on your front door. The whole house would jump up and I would run to the door, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sinterklaas, who left behind a big bag of gifts. I never managed to catch him delivering my gifts, and for some reason I never could find my dad until Sinterklaas has left again (it was of course my dad who would sneak out, bang the front door and leave a bag with gifts).
Quantity was important, so there were many boxes with many gifts. The rest of the evening was all about unwrapping these gifts, hoping it would contain items that were on my wish-list.
It’s obvious why this is an exciting time for young children. Especially if they are told Sinterklaas is a real person.
So for the non-Dutch, who is Sinterklaas?
It is most likely that this festivity finds its roots in a story in a children book from 1850. There’s a whole background related to Christianity, but I’ll shortly describe how the kids see it: He lives in Spain, keeps track of what children have been good and who has been bad. If you’re good, you’ll get gifts. If you’re a naughty kid, he will beat you with a stick, put you in a bag and take you to Spain.
You’ll understand the incentive to being a good kid is high. But as every kid has been naughty during the past year, kids are anxious to see if they get gifts, or will be punished.
Though negative reinforcement is old fashioned, the above would not cause the world to take offence of this holiday. What does cause a stir are the helpers that Sinterklaas brings.
The helpers Sinterklaas brings are called “ Zwarte Pieten”, or in English: “Black Pete’s”. These helpers are Caucasians who’s faces are painted black, act silly and are not that smart. Their main task is to throw around candy to children, wherever Sinterklaas appears.
So I grew up with the story that evolved to helpers who climb up and down the chimney and hence, their faces became black.
Regardless of the reasoning behind it, it must be clear that this is highly offensive. It reminds people of slavery, what is depicted in the shows, and a blunt disrespect for other people’s feelings.
So this divides the Netherlands in 3 groups: those against “Zwarte Piet” (as it is offensive), those who support it (based on traditions) and those who do not care. And whenever Sinterklaas appears, the first two groups will be present.
So imagine a children’s holiday, where children up to around 12 years old go to see Sinterklaas’ arrival with their parents, are confronted by 2 “political”camps and a lot of (riot) police trying to keep the different groups separated:
So what to do?
The kids don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t care who or what brings candy and gifts as long as they get some.
Those who get offended do not understand why Black Pete can exist in 2022. Though there might be some history to it in folklore stories, this does not outway the levels of disrespect towards the factual history around slavery.
And those who feel it must stay, feel its part of their history and removing it, is removing part of their Dutch identity.
Whatever the case, it results in kids having to see that their party is changed into a war zone where parents are fighting with riot police.
The current solution is to not paint faces black anymore, but instead have some black smudges painted on their faces to underline it is due to climbing through chimneys and therefor do away with the narrative of them being slaves. Additionally, kids are being told, in contrary to when I was raised, that the whole Sinterklaas thing is just a story and is not real. The result of both is a significant drop in the number of families attending these festivities and more focus is put towards Christmas and Saunta Clause. For example, though 6 weeks to go, I see Christmas lights and trees going up around the city. In my childhood, this would start after Sinterklaas evening (December 5th).
Personally I’m quite sad about this. On one hand I feel sorry that the kids of now are missing the memories I have: Sitting in the living room, next to the fire place, while outside snow is falling, waiting anxiously to know if I was a good boy and Sinterklaas will bang the door and bring me gifts. This after the many Sinterklaas festivities organized by schools and city-council.
On the other hand, I can also visualize the same from “the other side”: A less fortunate immigrant family who are not able to buy a bag of gifts and who’s kids who can only conclude they have been labeled as naughty.. And if sad about it, you’re told not to be difficult as it is supposed to be a Dutch tradition. How welcome does that make you feel?
So will Sinterklaas slowly but surely be phased out? Perhaps. Am I sad about it? A bit, seen certain memories I have will not be part of the current youth. But do I think that’s a problem? No!
Times have changed and acknowledging the brutal and inhumane Dutch history about slave trade is a rightful part of this. And the current youth will have memories that I do not have as a kid. I remind myself again that with time, there are changes, and all we, the boomers, can do is try to let it be for the better, for all of us. And “all of us” no longer is limited to your village only.