Each holiday season abroad, I stumble across something new. In Zhuhai it was pole dancing at a company Christmas party, in Cambridge it was a family Panto show filled with innuendo, and in Hong Kong it was consumerism gone mad.
The Netherlands has topped them all, however, with Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes).
In the alternative reality of the Netherlands, St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) is a friendly old bishop who spends most of the year living in Spain. Once a year he travels to the Netherlands by steam ship to celebrate his birthday and to fill Dutch children’s shoes with sweets and small gifts.
He is accompanied by Black Petes (Zwarte Pieten), a troupe of much-beloved helpers in black-face. (Yes, the kind of black-face that would ensure that you would be spit upon and beaten up just about anywhere else in the world.)
Fact 1: St. Nicolas lives in Spain rather than the North Pole.
Fact 2: St. Nicolas has black helpers (former slaves, but now just good friends) rather than pointy-eared elves.
Fact 3: St. Nicolas has nothing to do with Christmas.
Fact 4: Santa Claus is a Coca-Cola-fueled American fantasy.
I know this is all true because I saw it on TV. Specifically on channel 3 of the Dutch National Public Broadcasting system (NPO 3) via the Sinterklaas Journal.
Every evening since November 11th I have watched the 6:00 pm Sinterklaas Journaal, which is a news program broadcast in order to enable children of the Netherlands to keep tabs on Sinterklaas during this festive season (and to sell a lot of pre-show ad space). I faithfully watched the program with my children every evening last week.
Day 1: The Black Petes accidentally drill a hole in the side of their steam boat which is en route from Spain to the Netherlands.
Day 2: The Black Petes work like mad to bail out the boat. Afraid they are sinking, all but one (House Pete) abandons the ship. Sinterklaas is oblivious. House Pete later realizes that the water filling the bottom of the ship is from a bathroom faucet that had been left running.
Day 3: The missing Petes are a big problem! Who will help Sinterklaas with all the work of distributing gifts and tossing small spiced cookies (pepernoten) around? The Mayor of Gouda commissions a group of substitute Petes to be trained in an old factory. They use the factory smoke stack to practice falling down chimneys. This process also helps the substitute Petes to ‘black-up.’
Day 4: More worry over whether everything will come right in time for Sinterklaas’ scheduled arrival in the Netherlands.
Day 5: Despite all of the problems, Sinterklaas arrives in Gouda on Saturday the 15th. The missing Black Petes also arrive by lifeboat (only to later depart in a huff because the house they are to stay in is already full of the substitute Black Petes).
And Sinterklaas Journaal will go one like this for the next two weeks or so, like some extra-long episode the 1980s sit-com Three’s Company.
Within minutes of the first segment, my children were completely sold on the concept and have grafted Sinterklaas onto their holiday belief system.
I too really enjoyed our introduction to the Sinterklaas season (a nice Thanksgiving-filler for me). We stood in the rain to watch Sinterklaas and the Pieten arrive in Utrecht on Sunday, we have played the role of Sinterklaas by leaving small gifts in our children’s shoes and I plan to bake pepernoten next week.
All seemingly innocent fun, but how does one react when her American daughter lovingly creates this picture of Zwarte Piet, complete with red lips and gold hoop earrings?
Certainly a ‘teachable moment.’ I only have to cover hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, minstrel shows and white privilege.