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On-Site Curacao: Zwarte Piet Adds Controversy to Christmas

On-Site Curacao: Zwarte Piet Adds Controversy to Christmas
Juska Wendland via Flickr

Controversy. It’s not a word you’d normally associate with Christmas, right? That goes double for the Caribbean, where about the only Christmas controversy I could imagine would be a lack of rum at a Holiday Fete. At least that’s the only Christmas controversy I could’ve imagined prior to finding myself in Curacao a couple Decembers ago. Oh, they have plenty of controversy at Christmas time there, and everywhere else in the Netherlands for that matter… and it all revolves around one of Holland’s most enduring symbols of the Season.

Like the rest of the Netherlands, the lucky people of Curacao get to enjoy two December gift-giving periods – the December 25th visit from Santa Claus that we in the U.S. know so well, and an earlier December 5th appearance by Santa’s close cousin, Sinterklaas. Both figures stem from the same real-life Greek bishop who did God’s work a long, long time ago in a town called Mira located in what is modern-day Turkey. Outside of that and the whole gift-giving thing, that’s about all they have in common.

Santa: short and fat, resides at the North Pole, rolls via flying sleigh, wears non-secular and not very flattering red suit.

Sinterklaas: tall and skinny, resides in warm and sunny Spain, arrives via boat (prefers steam ship) and gets around on land by riding a white horse, dresses like the Pope.

Okay, they both wear red a lot and have white beards (usually), but they’re still pretty darn different.

According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas arrives by boat direct from Spain around mid-November. In Curacao, the arrival takes place, to great fanfare and news coverage, in St. Anna’s Bay where rests the capital city of Willemstad. For a couple weeks, Sinterklaas does his thing, parading around the island spreading good cheer and candy to all the island boys and girls. Gifts are reserved for the night of December 5th, the eve of Sinterklaas’ birthday – all good and nice…

So, what’s the problem? Well, see below.

Radio Nederland Wereldomroep via Flickr

By my earlier description, I’m sure you can make out who the Sinterklaas is, right? The rather disturbing looking fellows posing with him? They’re what’s known as the Zwarte Piet.

Yeah. Ummm. Hmmm.

To say that I was a tad taken aback by these characters would be a bit of an understatement. I mean, the black-face minstrel look is about as offensive an image as there is in America. The over-exaggerated red lips traditional of the costume make it even worse.

What’s the deal?

Zwarte Piet translates to Black Pete, and as you can well imagine, there are some racist skeletons in this character’s closet. Holland’s modern-day Christmas story dates back to 19th century, a time when I guess it was perfectly natural for a revered character like Sinterklaas to have slave helpers like Zwarte Piet. Over the years, though, Piet’s backstory was adapted with the times to the point where the black-face is now commonly explained away as chimney soot. (Okay, Santa and Sinterklaas also have a shared tendency toward breaking and entering via chimneys. I guess they have more in common than I thought). Still, for many, the character is hurtful. For me, the sight of them was certainly shocking.

The Sinterklaas I encountered at a shopping complex just outside of Willemstad had about 30 or so of the Zwarte Piet characters with him. They acted as a sort of Flash Mob, over-running the shops and restaurants while performing a whole host of mischievous antics, acrobatics and simple magic tricks. It was a spectacle that gave everyone in my group pause. (I was traveling with a group of journalists from Trinidad, so it was quite a protracted pause).

Shock gave way to outrage, which gave way to confusion and finally an uneasy acceptance as I watched the joyful reactions of local kids and adults of all ages and races interacting with the Zwarte Piet army. It was on the level with a kid’s first visit to Disney World upon seeing Mickey and Minnie wandering around, live and in color. Everyone wanted to get their photos taken with the characters, laughing, dancing and singing all the while.

Coming from a country that continues to view “Redskins” and its attendant symbols as a perfectly acceptable representation for a major sports team, I really had no room to cast aspersions on the Zwarte Piet. And truth be told, some Dutch areas have moved to banish or significantly adapt the character in an effort to develop a more politically correct Piet. For instance, in Flanders, a Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, one city has gone so far as to reverse the races, with a black Sinterklaas assisted by a white Pete.

In Curacao, though, at least during my 2006 visit, Zwarte Piet lives on, black-face and all.

So, what do you think – is it time to retire the Zwarte Piet tradition?

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  • Sinterklaas

    “the black-face minstrel look is about as offensive an image as there is in America.”

    This kind of sums up everything that is wrong in your article. You’re making comments on a cultural phenomenon from the viewpoint of an American. The Zwarte Piet is not a ‘slave helper’. And even though you ‘guess it was acceptable in the 19th century to have slave helpers’, it never was in the Netherlands. That’s your country and your issue.
    The Dutch never had slaves, so the automatically assume the origins of Zwarte Piet are in slavery is preposterous.

    The only issue with the Zwarte Piet is the “shock and outrage”, coming from the interpretation of unknowledgeable outsiders who think they should have a say in a centuries-old tradition of a culture they’ve only seen from the outside in.

    • uncommoncarib

      I appreciate the comment and your views. The Zwarte Piet came as a shock to me, personally, but I also noted that it was not an issue for the scores of local kids and adults of all ages and races that I observed interacting with the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet characters in Curacao a few years ago. I also clearly stated the following: “Coming from a country that continues to view ‘Redskins’ and its attendant symbols as a perfectly acceptable representation for a major sports team, I really had no room to cast aspersions on the Zwarte Piet.” The intent of the article was to present the tradition as it is and ask, as I did at the end, for reader reaction as to whether or not they think the tradition should continue. As to the issue of slavery, it’s no secret that every European country with colonies in the Caribbean between the 16th and 19th centuries were involved in the slave trade. Yes, slavery was always illegal within the Netherlands, but it’s commonly accepted that the Dutch, in fact, operated the #1 slave trade in the mid-17th century, and all told shipped about 550,000 Africans across the Atlantic. This ranks #5 among all European nations.

      • t.westerhof

        With other words about 1 in 20 of the unvoluntary African emigrants traveled Dutch, we know that! But as Zwarte Piet, the character first appeared in a Dutch city, in the company of the patron saint of prisoners, and there is no use of the word slave in Schenkman’s text, any suggestion that Pete would be a slave is just unfounded opinion. HOWEVER, according to the illustrations in the @$#$%#- ing rare first edition of Schenkman’s book, Pete was originally dressed as a house slave from the West Indies, at least somewhat like that. From which we can conclude that though Pete is a free man, he has not always been that. Which makes it perfectly understandable why he is happily helping in both the candy and presents buying and giving, and the kidnapping and flogging of bad kids, who tend to be exclusively white…

  • uncommoncarib

    Thanks for the added insight, t.westerhof. It is very interesting how the world’s traditions originated and the stories change over the centuries. As I stated earlier, my intent was not to judge the tradition, but rather to present it as I experienced it first-hand several years ago, and open up a discussion with our readers. I’ll update the text based on your comments. Thanks!

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  • Rozzy

    The reason the piets are black is because they deliver the gifts trough chimney! Now, do short people take it as an offense because St. Claus elves are short? Probably not! The other thing is that, in Curacao, you’re very likely to be white, black, and indian, as a mix! My dad has a 2 white grandfathers, a black grandmother, and indian grandmother. My grandparents are all mixed race! Because of this in Curacao, people don’t have a race issue as americans do! You cant really hate a race because which part of yourself would you hate!

    • chinos

      i’m mixed as well. at least 6 different ethnicities. but from trinidad. the first time i saw blackface as a ‘normal’ thing was in the netherlands during carnival celebrations. the image is weird for people from the west indies and the west indian diaspora, many of whom are mixed themselves…kudos to you for this post UC. too bad ppl can’t accept that for black/mixed foreigners with a history of colonialism the images are alarming. and you’ve quite politely only posted your reactions online seeking commentary and understanding on something outside your normal interactions with christmas.