Hundreds of Dutch citizens plan to don black face this weekend for parades in honor of St. Nicholas, who according to local lore is accompanied by a dark-skinned helper known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete
Part of the yuletide folklore of the Netherlands and Belgium, Black Pete character is a sidekick to St. Nicholas, carrying presents and giving out candy to children. Revelers who dress up as the character are almost always white. As well as blackening their faces, they wear frizzy Afro wigs and give themselves red lips, stereotypes that disappeared from most countries decades ago.
The Belgian town of Sint-Niklaas with a church and statue honoring the saint has long been one of the focal points of the celebrations. Yet even in this fortress of saintly tradition, questions are starting to be asked about Black Pete.
Wouter Van Bellingen remembers how, as a black child growing up in mostly white Sint-Niklaas, he used to be taunted with chants of: “Look, there goes Black Pete.”
“Kids can be hard when it comes to that,” said the former Sint-Niklaas alderman and current director of the region’s Minorities Forum. “I retorted with, ‘There goes White Pete.’ I always had my answer.”
Around this time of year, Saint Nicholas visits hundreds of villages in Belgium and Holland, arriving by steamer or on his white horse to the delight of shrieking children across the two countries. The Black Petes do everything from carrying presents to throwing sweets at the children and generally prancing about until Saint Nicholas day on Dec. 6.
While the Dutch island of Curacao celebrates Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, people from other Dutch colonies, such as St. Martin, are less tolerant of Zwarte Piet because they are more influenced by the United States and surrounding Islands. Curacao is a bit more isolated and in many ways is under a much stronger influence from the Netherlands in its political affairs and its educational system, despite its official status as an autonomous country. It’s not surprising that the Sinterklaas tradition was so strong there. Colonial ties can be hard to shake.
Nevertheless, dear Nederlanders: Overt celebrations of blackface characters such as Zwarte Piet do not belong in the 21st century. Zwarte Piet, under the guise of entertainment, is a modern-day commodification of blackness as parody, the mockery of blackness for profit and humor. With the emphasis on stressing profit, because Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet no doubt command big business every year in the Netherlands.