The Curious Case of Sinterklass and Zwarte Piet

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | The Lost Boys November 21, 2011 at 10:29AM

One of the most fascinating things about being in Holland at this time of year is being able to experience firsthand the bizarre tradition surrounding Christmas for Dutch folk. It focuses primarily on two characters: Sinterklass and Zwarte Piet.   Commercials featuring the two are constantly on Dutch television, and the poster above - for the annual release of a Sinterklass-themed film - is plastered all across Amsterdam...
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One of the most fascinating things about being in Holland at this time of year is being able to experience firsthand the bizarre tradition surrounding Christmas for Dutch folk. It focuses primarily on two characters: Sinterklass and Zwarte Piet.   Commercials featuring the two are constantly on Dutch television, and the poster above - for the annual release of a Sinterklass-themed film - is plastered all across Amsterdam...

Do your double take.

Yep, that dude is still totally in blackface.

That dude is Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete) - a "servant" of Sinterklaas.   Usually he is an adolescent in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17-th century page in a colourful dress, often with a lace collar, and donning a feathered cap.  You see children all over Holland actually dressed up like this with black makeup on their faces. My cousin explained to me last week that while he completely agrees it's an insanely racist tradition, this is the defence: Pete's a chimney sweep. It's soot on his face.

Then why is the rest of him clean?

Growing up, I actually would participate in the Dutch Christmas festivities every year. My parents are both Dutch, and one of the few things that got carried over when their families immigrated to Canada was that on the night of December 5th, we'd put wooden shoes by the fireplace with a carrot in them for Sinterklaas' horse. In the morning, there would be chocolate in the shoe. That was that.

I have no recollection of Pete being in black face (I'd hope parents took this part out of it anyway), but it's been a fascinating education this past week or so... On my last day I might just have to check out the Sinterklaas movie:

This article is related to: Peter Knegt