Sinterklaas and Black Pete seen through my eyes

Hot discussions are going around in the Netherlands about Saint Nicholas and his true friend Black Pete, who always helps him out in a funny way. They pass by on the eve of St. Nicholas’ day, 5th of December, and leave gifts for the children through the chimney. Last year a team from the UN with especially one angry lady made a whole lot of hubbub about festivities in the country where I live and also grew up. I think all for nothing and I’ll tell you why I think so and – more important: why I think I have the right to have my say here. With some nice sketches and videos so that you can understand what it’s really about.

Anyway, here is the lady that made the hubbub: Verene Shepherd of the UN. If you look up pictures of her, you clearly see she’s extremely proud to be black. Personally I hardly find her black, but in the USA everyone who isn’t totally white, is counted as black as far as I can understand. I’m proud to be Greek too, that’s normal and they’ve got such beautiful dresses and shawls and everything in many African countries. It must be special to have your roots there! But I do ask myself if someone who is so nationalistic is on her place in an anti-racism team.

What I don’t understand, is why people make such a fuzz about races. I mean: we’re all people and yes, one is a little bit darker or lighter of skin than another. I can’t deny that, being not blind. But why shouldn’t we just accept each other as we are and make a nice world all together? Why should we always keep on thinking coloured people are discriminated or have less value than white people? How many people are mixed today? What can you then say about them? Are they black, Asian, Indian, American native, or ….? Let’s just be people from now on, what do you think about that?

mijn taalschool
My language school

Let me first tell you why I have the impression I have the right to open my mouth on this issue. I have been a foreign language teacher for 25 years and for 70% of my time I taught Dutch to foreigners. I have met people from many, many countries in the world that way and since I have always been very interested in languages and cultures, I always had friends from other countries. Now of all those people that I knew as friends or as students NO-ONE at all ever had any criticism on Sinterklaas or Black Pete! They would certainly have told me so if they had had any problem with that and then I would have smiled and told them it’s nothing, just an old tradition, a nice thing for children.

So last year when that UN team suddenly came here saying Black Pete was racistic and offending for black people, everyone was stunned! There was absolutely no such discussion in our country, no-one had ever even thought about black pete being racistic and what did our government do? They gave in to this stupidity, stating that people dressed up like Black Pete shouldn’t wear fake golden earrings anymore or paint their lips red. Now we have golden and green Petes and rainbow Petes … The whole country was left with one big question mark and everyone started writing, blogging and talking about it. Nobody agreed anymore to any other, because it’s tradition in the Netherlands that each one must have their own, original opinion. This year halfway November when Sint and Pete came from ‘Spain’ by boat like always and their arrival was a big festivity, people started fighting and I read in the newspaper that in one city (Gouda, maybe you know it from the cheese) 60 people got arrested. At a children’s party, excuse me! Who is racistic now?

Sint at school

The way the story goes, is this: the real Saint Nicholas was a very sweet Greek bishop, who gave his money and possessions away to the poor, by putting gifts into the shoes of the people. They used to leave those outside the door, because the houses were small and like that it wouldn’t smell inside. Now his bones are in Spain I think or else the story that he comes from Spain comes from an 80-year war between the Netherlands and Spain around the year 1600. So the children are told he comes by boat all the way from Spain with his helpers – who are a very well organized gift-company that has a lot of work to do in order to get all the presents to the right children – and they get through the chimney (or else the balcony if they live in a flat appartement) and leave gifts for the kids.

The initiative is by Sint, but he can’t possibly do all that work alone, so he needs someone to help him. That’s Black Pete and actually a whole organization of Black Petes. They’re funny, make saltos and tell jokes, they throw candies on the floor and in the old years, so until about the sixties of the last century, they also pulled your ear a little if you had been naughty. They used to carry a rod and played as if they would hit you with it, but of course never did. Nowadays that whole story doesn’t exist anymore – times changed. You can hear from this video by standup comedian Najib Amhali that not every foreigner in the country grasps the idea of Sinterklaas. I know many people are so handy in finding translations into English that I will share the video, even if it’s in Dutch. Have to add that even if Najib speaks very fast, foreigners always understand him, even if they don’t speak good Dutch. Najib found the Saint knockout in front of his door, because his (Moroccan) father beat him up, not knowing the candies that Pete threw into the house, were a tradition and having taken the Saint with his long beard for Taliban:

Now the thing the whole hot issue is all about, is the key question, or ham question as we say in Dutch: why would Pete be exactly black? Well, as children we were told that Pete had become black because he went through the chimneys and those were full of black smoke. Pete is most of the time not painted with a brown face, but really black. And there are always some white Petes as well. But he may also be a remaining of the Moorish culture in Spain. What he is certainly not, is a black slave.

About the clothes somewhere in the many articles I read about this subject lately, I found an explanation that I found meaningful: noble people from African countries, most of the time Mauretania, wore this kind of dresses and even if the real Saint Nick lived in the 3rd century AD, the children’s story goes about Spain. That means in the late Middle Ages and after, when the Moors were there and they were dressed more or less that way. Now the Moors were not slaves of any kind: they occupied a large part of Southern Spain, Andalucia, and left a beautiful culture there with fantastic music and dances. So why would people now suddenly say Black Pete is offending, because he’s the servant of Sinterklaas? No, he’s his best friend and he helps the old man, he supports him, he makes him laugh, he does the difficult work for him, because he is so souple and so fast! Many Dutch people love to be black one day per year and play for Black Pete. There is nothing racistic about this whole festivity. Nothing, nothing, nothing! Instead it’s a nice time of the year with cheerful songs, an old man on a white horse and his friends making jokes around him.

pepernoten: traditional, spiced cookies

I hope the peace will now be restored and we can nicely celebrate Sinterklaas, not buying too expensive presents for our nowadays way too materialistic children and teaching them to be grateful even with a small gift. The whole atmosphere is gone and people are confused. They already put Christmas trees and lights in the houses, not knowing what to do with Sinterklaas. That’s a pity, let’s not allow our culture to be ruined. And don’t forget the traditional poems and surprises while wrapping in the presents! Have a beautiful Sinterklaas evening this Friday!


©Sophia Vassiliou 2014 – 2017

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