Sinterklaas and Black Pete seen through my eyes

Hot discussions are again 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. In 2013, a team from the UN with especially one angry lady made a whole lot of hubbub about these festivities in the country where I live and also grew up. Years later we still haven’t recovered from it. I think all for nothing and I’ll tell you why I think it’s all for nothing. We actually keep alive a great tradition from the Moorish culture. If that isn’t a wonderful way to pay back our sins from the slavery era … ?


Anyway, here is the lady that created 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. And I severely ask myself if someone who is so nationalistic is on her place in an anti-racism team. I’m proud to be Greek too, that’s normal. I love Africa a lot and I will show you through this article that the Dutch love Africa a lot too!

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?

my language center

Let me first tell you why I have the impression I have the right to open my mouth on this issue. Being Greek myself, I was 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 (Saint Nicholas) or Black Pete! They would certainly have told me so, because we discussed everything in my lessons.

Demonstrations with violence

So in 2013, 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 …Not only that: now every year when the Saint performs his arrival to the Netherlands with a great party, there are demonstrations with a lot of violence! Mayors are convinced they have to give permission to people who are suddenly opposed to Black Pete and let these people walk between families and say nasty things to their children. There is even police present since a couple of years!

The whole country was left with one big question mark and everyone started writing, blogging and talking about it. Nobody agreed to any other anymore, because another great tradition in the Netherlands prescribes that everyone must have their own, original opinion. In 2016 halfway November when Sint and Pete came from ‘Spain’ by boat and their arrival was a big festivity like always, 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. In 2017 even more than a 100 people got arrested. At a children’s party, excuse me! Who is the racist here?

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 Bari (Italy). The story that he comes from Spain originates in 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 themselves through the chimney (or else the balcony if they live in a flat appartement) and leave the gifts there.

The story of Saint Nicholas and Black Pete

The initiative is by Saint Nicholas, 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, tell jokes and throw candies on the floor. 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 they 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. Even if Najib speaks very fast, foreigners always understand him, even if they don’t speak good Dutch. So I think you’ll find your way with him too! Najib tells a hilarious story about having found the Saint knockout in front of his door, because his (Moroccan and thus African!) father beat him up, not knowing the candies 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 also is a remaining of the Moorish culture in Spain. What he certainly is not, is a black slave!

A Moorish heritage

About the clothes somewhere in the many articles I read about this subject, I found an explanation that I found meaningful: noble people from African countries, most of the time Mauretania, wore this kind of dresses. Even if the real Saint Nicholas 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 certainly 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 and fabulous palaces. Not only that: they also had a great inner civilisation, that survived in Andalucia. Do you know today’s Mauretanians don’t even remember their beautiful past? We kept it alive for them. In a wonderful tradition far away in the Netherlands: a children’s festivity with noble Mauretanians in ancient costumes being nice and sweet to children. Very capable young people, good at logistics and marketing for the old Saint Nicholas who they love and honour!

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 supple and fast! Many Dutch people love to be black one day per year and play for Black Pete. There is absolutely nothing racistic about this whole festivity. Instead it’s the greatest time of the year with cheerful songs, an old man on a white horse and his friends. Isn’t that a wonderful homage to this great ancient African civilisation? What could the Dutch do better to restore their sins by taking slaves from Africa than to keep their traditions alive in such a respectful manner?

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 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 destroyed. And don’t forget the traditional poems and surprises while wrapping in the presents! Have a beautiful Sinterklaas eve this year and every year!


©Sophia Vassiliou 2013 – 2017

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