The subject is the Dutch St. Nicholas holiday; Sinterklaas, on 5-6 December. It is an important day for children and others, who get presents then.
In 1850, Jan Schenkman published his influential book on the Saint Nicholas celebration, Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht.
Though incorporating some really traditional elements, Schenkman was an example of “invention of tradition“.
The original Saint Nicholas tradition was about an Orthodox Christian bishop from what is now Turkey, a friend of children; not an owner of African slaves. While Schenkman wrote that Saint Nicholas owned an African slave.
The restyling by Schenkman and others, among other aspects, had two sides related to sugar: many of the presents for children, later also for adults, were sweets or otherwise contained much sugar.
And from then on, Piet (Peter; Zwarte Piet, Black Peter), as later post Schenkman authors called the black servant of Bishop Nicholas, played a major role during the holiday.
Authors like Schenkman based Piet on (caricatures of) the black slaves then in the sugar and other plantations in the Dutch colonies of Suriname and the Antilles. More especially on house slaves of plantation owners’ homes, often wearing colourful servants’ uniforms.
Still about 1960, a child opened a book of “traditional” Saint Nicholas songs.
One song in that book was Sinterklaas, die goede heer (Saint Nicholas, that good gentleman).
One song line in that song went: “Servant Piet, as black as soot, with a chain around his foot …”
The chain was also depicted in the picture on the same page.
“Mummy, why does Piet have a chain around his foot?”
“Because he is a slave, my child!”
UPDATE: Today, in 2013, that song is still on the Internet, including the “chain” line.
Since about 1960, many people immigrated into The Netherlands from Suriname.
Many of them see the present role of Zwarte Piet, played by white people in blackface, in the Saint Nicholas celebrations as insulting to the memory of the victims of slavery and as racist.
Sometimes, these objections get reactions of the type: “Zwarte Piet does not have anything to do with slavery!” Those defenders of the blackface Piet say that he is black, not because of any African background, but because of clambering in chimneys. Or that he is originally a devil, not a slave of African origin. Or, they say … well, err, maybe it IS a question of complexion. But then, again, nothing to do with Dutch slavery history. Sinterklaas supposedly comes from Spain (though older versions say Turkey, or Italy). And Piet’s dark skin reminds people of the Muslim inhabitants of medieval Spain.
Well, today Mr Koppejan was asked by the Metro interviewer:
Sinterklaas used to be obviously the master, and Zwarte Piet obviously the servant. Piet acted submissively and spoke broken Dutch with a Surinamese accent. Is this a tradition as well?
I do not support a white Piet. It is also no problem to me if he talks with a Surinamese accent. We should have no problems with that. Zwarte Piet should keep on being Zwarte Piet.
Here, blackface supporter Koppejan undermines the points of his fellow blackface supporters. “Nothing to do with slavery”, really? Then, why the reference to Suriname, the main country in Dutch slavery history?
Black Pete is just a bit of fun for the Netherlands, right? Wrong: here.
USA: It’s criminal that Virginia’s governor could promote a version of the state’s history that neglects to mention the horrific crime of slavery, writes Michele Bollinger: here.
Rare photo of slave children found in North Carolina attic: here.
- Blackface: In 2012, blackface is still popular around the world from Japan to the Netherlands (thegrio.com)
- Christmas already in the Caribbean? (lisalaughs.wordpress.com)
- Dutch Christmas parade under fire for ‘blacked up’ Santa’s helpers (telegraph.co.uk)
- Edam, Netherlands: Cheese and Slavery (sarahlynnpablo.wordpress.com)
- Only decent white people know how to insult (africasacountry.com)
- Holiday Stocking History (personalcreations.com)
- En Sinterklaas is er weer! (expatsincebirth.com)
- Kleurplaat / Coloring (susiart.blogspot.com)
- Zwarte Piet, Dutch culture, a holiday for children or racism? (katjanatascha.wordpress.com)