Photo courtesy of Chad Bilyeu.
 
The winter season kicked off in the Netherlands with a holiday celebrating Saint Nicolas and his little helper Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. The bearer of gifts and sweet things, Zwarte Piet is popular with many children, but also highly controversial in the grown-up world, where some have questioned whether his blackface appearance still has a place in today’s multicultural society.
 
The tale of Saint Nicolas, or Sinterklaas, and Zwarte Piet is similar to that of Santa Claus. Instead of reindeer, Sinterklaas has a white horse. And in the place of elves, he has Zwarte Piet, a little man with coal-black skin. Although legend once had it that Zwarte Piet’s skin colour was due to his African origins, children today are told that he is actually covered in soot from constantly scrambling in and out of chimneys.
 
This year, Sinterklaas celebrations kicked up more controversy than usual. A group called “Zwarte Piet is Racist” stirred up debate in the Netherlands after staging a number of events geared toward creating a dialogue over the beloved national figure. The holiday even made international headlines after a Dutch community in New Westminster, Canada, cancelled festivities after members of the African-Canadian community said Zwarte Piet should not be included in the December 3 event.
 
The controversy, however, did not keep people in the Netherlands from digging out their Zwarte Piet costumes and painting their skin black come Sinterklaas day on December 5.
 
Photo posted on yfrog by riafleurtje.
 
Photo posted on Twitpic by @gewoonroom.

“Only politically correct people have a problem with Zwarte Piet”

Paul van Raalten lives in Amsterdam, where he imports Italian food products for a living.
 

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is an even bigger holiday than Christmas. In my youth, Zwarte Piet was a much more aggressive, scary character. If you misbehaved, Zwarte Piet would put you in a sack and carry you off to Spain. He also had a sack of twigs that he would lash you with as a punishment. Of course these things were never really done – it was just a story to frighten naughty children.

These days Zwarte Piet is much nicer. He gives you sweeties and throws them around everywhere. In preparation for December 5, you are supposed to put your shoes in front of the fireplace and you leave something inside for Sinterklass's white horse to eat. At night, Zwarte Piet reaches down through the chimney and leaves a present in your shoe. The next day the children are very excited when they wake up in the morning.

Of course there is a kind of discrimination against people who are different from others. It’s human nature. But Zwarte Piet isn’t about that. Only politically correct people have a problem with his character. They’re creating a problem where there isn’t one.

Luckily the Netherlands isn’t as politically correct as they are in the United States – we can make fun of the whole thing”.

“The tradition is supposed to be about inclusion and solidarity. So why do we want it to be connected with something racist from our past?"

Quinsy Gario is a poet, visual artist, and television/filmmaker, who lives in Amsterdam. He was also part of the “Zwarte Piet is Racist” project.
 
What we’ve been doing since June is trying to start a dialogue with people so they can get the facts about the history of Zwarte Piet. What happens a lot when you talk with people here is that they lose themselves to an emotional view. They tend to get stuck in what they see as something good from childhood, something that is intrinsically Dutch and shouldn’t be changed.
 
The image of Zwarte Piet first appeared in a book in 1852 as the slave of Sinterklass. This was around the same time blackface was appearing in America, and 11 years before slavery was abolished in the Netherlands. It’s also important to note that the US and the Netherlands have more than 400 years of cultural exchange between them. It was a time when racism was the norm.
 
Since then the figure has been changed according to the times. In 1966 Zwarte Piet was transformed into a child-like buffoon, to make him more child-friendly. In dong so, however, Zarte Piet also fulfilled the African stereotype of being simple and child-like. Later on, Zwarte Piet became pretty much Sinterklass’s manager. This new role can be linked with a mimic-man, which means he takes on the role of his one-time oppressor.
 
Aside from that, Zwarte Piet is shocking on a visual level. Every year the Netherlands tries to portray itself as an international, tolerant country – home of the international court, tulips, football and all that. But no one knows about Zwarte Piet, which makes you wonder are we really that proud of it?
 
The tradition is supposed to be about inclusion and solidarity. It’s about giving and sharing and receiving. The question is, why do we want something so beautiful to be connected with something racist from our past?”
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Rachel Holman.