Zwarte Piet Adds Controversy to Christmas: On-Site Curacao
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 in Decembers 2006. Oh, they have plenty of controversy at Christmas time there, and everywhere else in the Netherlands for that matter. It all revolves around one of the most enduring symbols of the Dutch Holiday Season: Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
Twice the Gift-Giving
Like the rest of the Netherlands, the lucky people of Curacao enjoy two December gift-giving periods. One of them is the same December 25th visit from Santa Claus that we in the USA know so well. The other is a December 5th appearance by Santa’s close cousin, Sinterklaas.
Both figures stem from the same real-life Greek bishop who did God’s good work long ago in a town called Mira located in what is now modern-day Turkey. Outside of that and the whole gift-giving thing, though, that’s about all they have in common.
Santa Claus vs. Sinterklaas
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 a lot of red and have white beards (usually), but they’re still pretty different.
Sinterklaas Curacao Tradition
According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas arrives by boat direct from Spain around mid-November. In Curacao, the arrival takes place, to great fanfare, in St. Anna’s Bay. For a couple weeks, Sinterklaas does his thing, parading around Curacao spreading good cheer and candy to kids all over the island. 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.
Zwarte Piet is the Problem
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 American society. The over-exaggerated red lips typical of the racist caricature 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.
Zwarte Piet’s Racist History
Holland’s modern-day Christmas story dates back to 19th century. At the time, of course, it was perfectly natural for a revered character like Sinterklaas to have slave helpers.
Over the years, though, ZP’s backstory was adapted with the times. Nowadays the black-face is 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 remains hurtful offensive. For me, the sight of them was certainly shocking.
My Zwarte Piet Experience
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 few fellow 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 celebrate the harmful misappropriation of Native American names, symbols, and cultural icons/traditions in the glorification of professional sports, I really had no room to cast aspersions on the Zwarte Piet. And truth be told, there exists today an ever-expanding push toward doing away with Zwarte Piet.
Is Black Pete Gradually Going Away..?
In 2020, Dutch libraries removed books depicting the controversial character. Well, mostly.
Also in 2020, Facebook and Instagram banned users from posting ZP images.
COVID-19 and the global proliferation of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 also dealt a blow to the Black Pete tradition.
Not everyone is happy about the push to get rid of Zwarte Piet, of course. Neo-Nazis, in particular, seem especially keen on keeping the tradition alive.
Back in Curacao, Zwarte Piet lives on…black-face and all.
So, what do you think – is it time to retire the Zwarte Piet tradition?