Friday, December 15, 2017

Dutch Santa Claus and Black Pete

The Dutch celebrate Santa Claus on December 5 - Sinterklaas Day. In recent years, this celebration has become problematic. An old custom has become controversial, namely the Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete” tradition:

The way the Dutch have celebrated Sinterklaas Day traditionally is by having him arrive by boat from Spain. I suppose this has something to do with the fact that the Netherlands were under Spanish rule until about 300 years ago.

What has made this custom problematic in the 21st century is that each year, Santa is accompanied by a bunch of helpers called “Black Petes.” These are supposed to be young black Moorish boys, perhaps formerly slaves. They are usually enacted by white people who splash on blackface.

When I still lived in the Netherlands in the 1950s, these “black boys” carried with them a stick, a rod or a broom. The clear implication was that while good children would receive candy and presents, those who had been disobedient throughout the past year would get a thrashing meted out by one of the black Petes. So this bit of “folklore” was threatening to many children. While I was already too old to believe this nonsense, I remember one Christmas when the young (maybe 7-year old) daughter of one of our neighbors was screaming bloody murder as Santa and his helpers were approaching their house.

I doubt that the Dutch still observe this aspect of their Santa Claus celebration. However, the “Black Pete” tradition survives to this very day.

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This is puzzling. In many ways, the Dutch claim to be - and indeed ARE - among the world’s most progressive people. They have usually been in the forefront of the legalization of drugs, gay marriage, euthanasia, abortion, prostitution and a variety of other behaviors which many other societies still criminalize. They have been a haven of religious tolerance ever since the Huguenots and the Puritans sought refuge among them.

The Dutch are politically correct to an almost preposterous extent: Instead of referring to people of color with standard terms such as “black,” “minority” or “African-European,” some Dutchmen have suggested the term Andersgekleurde medemens. The literal translation for this hilarious expression is: “ Fellow Human being of another color.”

However, for some reason, a few/some/many (?) Dutchmen refuse to break with the weird Black Pete tradition. In the US, blackface performances, plays and attire of any sort have been taboo for a long time. Strangely, in the Netherlands, the custom refuses to die.

A couple of years back, Madeleine published an article about Black Petes on this blog (see The Gestapo of Political Correctness). In that essay, she noted some of the narrow-mindedness and illogic of extreme political correctness.

In recent years, the two sides have been at each other’s throat over the black Petes: There are progressive anti-Pete demonstrations by people whom some would call “liberal elites” vs. die-hard defenders of this old-fashioned Dutch tradition.

The conflict seems to be largely between traditional rural areas, and the diverse, cosmopolitan folks from large cities such as Amsterdam.(See Dutch Blackface). This is clearly reminiscent of the current polarization in the US: The urbane, bi-coastal culture vs. the rural South and Midwest.

This year (again) anti-black Pete protesters traveled by bus from Amsterdam to march and demonstrate in some small town in the Frisian part of Northern Holland. As a safeguard against violence, they were escorted by the police.

Meanwhile, the villagers had set up roadblocks.

Some of the demonstrators from Amsterdam were non-white. They claim to have received Facebook messages such as: "Get the fuck out of the Netherlands," "we white people will cheer when you’ve gone," and anonymous telephone calls from people calling them ‘monkey’ and other hateful things. 

To be sure, some of the Frisian villagers were welcoming, so apparently opinions are divided even there (just as in Alabama, thank God). But it’s interesting to note that racism is not limited to the United States, as some would have us believe.

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I have no idea how the proportions of racist and non-racist Dutchmen stack up. The pro- Black Pete people might be a dwindling minority, mostly a small rural segment of the country that lives increasingly in the past and is dying out. Or this could signify a resurgent nativism, as Geert Wilders’ popularity suggests (he is a Dutch version of Donald Trump, with ideas similar to the US President, but better command of language).

It is also possible that this tradition will evolve into a more benign form: I already mentioned that I doubt that today’s black Pete still shows up with a rod or a broom, threatening to beat up those kids who had been naughty during the year.

Similarly, I learned in a recent Skype conversation with a Dutch friend that the helpers whom Santa brings with him from Spain every December 5 increasingly paint their faces green, blue, purple, rainbow or something else...

This is a hopeful sign. Once again, the Dutch have the genius to diffuse a potentially explosive situation through humor and imagination.
© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved
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