In the Netherlands, we have our own version of Christmas called Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas is celebrated on Dec. 5 and is a little different from Christmas. Instead of stockings, children put boots next to their chimneys, and Sinterklaas is believed to ride a horse onto the roofs of their houses instead of a sleigh.
Also, instead of elves, Sinterklaas has a very controversial helper: Zwarte Piet.
Zwarte Piet (pronounced “Zvahrta Peet”), which translates to Black Peter or Black Pete in English, helps Sinterklaas with presents, navigation and other small tasks (although he usually hinders more than helps since he is very clumsy).
He first appeared in the book “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht,” written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
This doesn’t seem too controversial, right? Well, there is one thing I forgot to tell you: Zwarte Piet is almost always depicted as black.
According to most historians, Zwarte Piet is black either because he is a Moor from Spain or because he enters children’s houses through chimneys, causing his face to be covered in soot.
However, actors portraying Zwarte Piet typically put on blackface makeup in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings.
Not surprisingly, these costumes have made Zwarte Piet controversial in recent years.
Although Zwarte Piet is a big part of the Dutch holiday season, I think his appearance should be altered.
I understand that Sinterklaas is a children’s holiday and that some children might not even associate Zwarte Piet’s color with race. When I was little, I associated Zwarte Piet only with soot.
But for others, Zwarte Piet is an offensive misrepresentation of their community.
They are being portrayed as somewhat clumsy helpers who always cause problems. And Dutch minorities certainly don’t wear brightly colored clothes, big wigs and lipstick.
Growing up, I saw Zwarte Piet everywhere from November to December: in stores, in the streets, at parties – even on the news! There was no escaping him.
Zwarte Piet would even come to visit our elementary school.
Quite frankly, the behavior and costumes of Zwarte Piet seem outdated. They represent what the Dutch thought of black people in the 1850s, before slavery was outlawed and the Civil Rights movement.
But Zwarte Piet doesn’t represent the ideals of the Netherlands today.
The Netherlands is a progressive country, pro-equality and pro-civil rights. Consequently, derogatory traditions like Zwarte Piet just aren’t right.
Why can’t we have actors of all ethnicities represent Zwarte Piet?
Some organizations have already started making actors represent the ash from the chimneys by putting dust on their clothing or arms instead of on their faces. This isn’t too much work, makes a lot of people happier about our traditions, and doesn’t diminish the holiday spirit at all.
—By Héloïse Schep