On-Site Curacao: Zwarte Piet Adds Controversy to Christmas
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.
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?