Sunday, November 22, 2009

Getting in the Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet Spirit

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet have already arrived on their boat, but theres still another week before Sinterklaasavond!

Here's a general Sinterklaas 101 for those of you who are confused. Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas) is from Turkey. Zwarte Piet is his helper. Apparently, when Dutch adults paint their faces back it isn't blackface (umm, yes it is) and it isn't racist (yes it is). I find this debate hard to believe but it's my first year here so, a lot of Dutch things seem pretty weird... Zwarte Piet takes the cake pepernoten!

Allegedly, there are a bunch of different reasons why Zwarte Piet is black ("he came in through the chimney!") but let's be honest, he was a slave. And back in the day, slaves were black. It's so weird for adults to do this and when I saw Zwarte Piet in Leiden last year, it was totally daunting. A grown man with a shiny black face and cartoon red lips? In my opinion, you can still dress like Zwarte Piet without offending so many people with blackface and big fake lips For example, wear the silly costume, throw some pepernoten at the kids, sing all the songs and no one gets their feelings hurt. So, that's we did!

Do you recall that historically, Dutch people are really into sailing, exploring the world and making maps? Well, St. Nicolas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants and children so you can guess the importance with that. In the Netherlands December 5th is Sinterklaasavond and the nights leading up to this revolve around children leaving their shoes out with some snacks for Sinterklaas' horse Amerigo. Then Zwarte Piet brings some little presents in exchange. Also involved are funny poems.

It's pretty funny story kinda similar to the Santa Clause tradition (with a dash of racism). Basically, you've got happy kids, spicy cookies, some great medieval costumes and a steam boat parade which is pretty cool too. Also, did I mention that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet live in a castle in Spain? That's where they make the toys an the naughty kids will be stolen in bags and taken back to the castle. Perhaps it's those naughty kids who magically turn into more Zwarte Pieten!?   

I've been meaning to post this because its amazing and basically left me speechless the first time I watched. I was trying to explain Sinterklaas-Zwarte Piet-black face situation to my friend Jolie and this was the easiest way:

Wearing Zwarte Piet's funny hat (no blackface required)

Zwarte Piet chocolates 

A questionably confusing Zwarte Piet (?)

And Zwarte Piet mountain climbing on some bread

Libby and I are planning a weekend to Rotterdam soon and hope to explore the city and other Sinterklaas delights. I think we might have to actually purchase these awesome headbands. See what I mean? No blackface was needed for us to celebrate Sinterklaas!


  1. I was totally going to write a blog like this! Don't worry though I have a bunch of my own pictures for this one that I can use as well!

  2. Those cookies look like Hanky the Christmas Poo with a fancy hat. Maybe this black face dude is Hanky's cousin?