Black Pete & Childhood

This is one of those blogs that has been in the making for months and I was convinced today would be the day I’d share the whole thing with the world.

However, as I previewed it just now I realized it was turning into a lengthy thesis, rather than something easy-to-read-while-sitting-on-the-toilet (which is one of the best places to catch up on blog updates and news events, and you know it).

So I decided to pull a JK Rowling.

Instead of one massive text, I will now be publishing 5 Black Pete related posts, spread over 5 days. The fifth one will contain a meaningful conclusion to tie it all together, which I hope to come up with any minute now…

So, without further ado, let me introduce to you episode number one, in which I take you back to my own personal childhood memories of Zwarte Piet, aka Black Pete.

Childhood celebration

Growing up as a privileged Dutch kid in South America, I remember feeling sorry for my non- Dutch classmates who did not know about Sinterklaas. At the international schools I went to, it was mostly Christmas that was celebrated in the holiday season, and I remember it made total sense to me that Santa Claus did not exist, but that Sinterklaas absolutely did. I was a true believer.

Sinterklaas and Black Pete arriving from Spain.

It was a well known fact that Sinterklaas arrived in the Netherlands from Spain every year by boat. This steamboat carried all our gifts, Sinterklaas’ horse and his loyal companions: the black Petes. 

For kids, the Petes are often quiet scary, and this is kind of the point. As the
(literal and figurative) “dark element” in the Sinterklaas celebration, the Black Petes were always used as a threat to keep children in line throughout the year. Nowadays this is less common, but Pete’s disciplinary character still shines through every now and then.

Black Pete and Sinterklaas stuff the naughty kids in jute bags to be taken back to Spain, where they are to be put to work.

Sinterklaas’ arrival, which is referred to as “de intocht van Sinterklaas” is celebrated every year in a different Dutch city. Kids from all over the country count down the days for his arrival, as this is when they can start leaving out their shoe (usually in the windowsill or by the fireplace).

With a small gift or snack for Sinterklaas’ horse (usually a carrot) tucked safely in the shoe, each child sings one (or several) traditional Sinterklaas song(s) and then heads off to bed. The next morning the carrot is gone (eaten by the horse, of course) and traces of Sinterklaas’ visit may be seen around the house. Most importantly though: the shoes are filled with traditional seasonal candy and a small gift. They get to repeat this ritual several times until December the 5th, which is Sinterklaas’ birthday.

On the day of his birthday, Sinterklaas and the Petes go door to door handing out gifts to all the good kids, in a tradition packed evening called “pakjesavond” or “gift evening”. It is said that naughty kids receive a lump of salt instead of a toy (no idea why) and that repeat offenders may end up being taken back to Spain in the jute bag as Pete trainees. 

Upon their arrival, the black Petes barge in, making a big ruckus, doing cartwheels and jumping on the furniture. Sinterklaas enters after them, slowly and solemnly, waving at the kids and winking at the parents. I never recognized any of them, all though they probably were parents, uncles and aunts of my friends and classmates. 

How he managed to arrive in Bolivia on the same day he was busy handing out gifts in the Netherlands never raised any questions. Living in a landlocked country I should perhaps have been worried about the fact that his preferred means of transportation was an old steam boat.

I was satisfied with the idea that he probably sailed up the Amazon river and had ridden the rest of the way up the Andes mountains by horse. How the Petes had made their way to my home is a question I ask myself for the very first time today… I wasn’t a great critical thinker at the age of 6, apparently.

Even as I grew older I continued to look forward to the Sinterklaas celebration. Of course I no longer believed he was anything other than a man in a costume, but I still got jitters when the Black Petes made their entrance, throwing sweets through the classroom and later in the offices where I worked.

All though kids usually stop believing in Sinterklaas around the age of 8, most families continue to celebrate “pakjes-avond”. The shoe-element disappears to the background as children grow up and a new element is introduced: poetry.

Adult celebration

The adult version of the Sinterklaas celebration still revolves around giving each other gifts, but more than that, it is about praising, reprimanding and teasing each other with cheeky rhymes.

Contrary to Christmas (which obviously has some common traits and historical origins) Sinterklaas-for-adults is not exclusively a family celebration but something people also often celebrate among friends.

Celebrating Sinterklaas with friends, drinks and games

All though there are many ways these get-togethers can take shape, the most common one can be summarized as follows:

  1. Establish gift-budget with the people you will be celebrating with.
  2. Write your name + wishlist (within budget range) on a piece of paper. and put it into a box or bag along with everyone else’s.
  3. Everybody picks a name from the box, Secret-Santa-style, and buys that person a gift.
  4. The gift is presented or wrapped in a “surprising” way (for example stuffed in a big jar of gunk or hidden in a papier-maché sculpture). 
  5. Along with the gift every person must make a poem for the other, in which gossip and old grudges about the receiver can be put into rhyme. The poem is usually written from the point of view of either Sinterklaas or Pete.
  6. On pakjes-avond each person reads their (sometimes quite embarrassing) poem out loud to the rest, before unpacking their present (and hopefully having a great laugh about it all).

If you are interested in reading more about the many different ways in which adults celebrate Sinterklaas I recommend the following blogs and articles:

During most of my lifetime, I had never thought of the Black Pete element in this whole celebration as wrong or discriminatory in any way. I can’t even remember anyone ever telling me it wasn’t ok, not even any of my international friends. If someone did, it didn’t really make an impression.

The racist character of Black Pete is a real problem however, and one that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. I will go into different elements of this matter in upcoming posts and hope I will be able to rid myself of some personal frustrations along the way.

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4 thoughts on “Black Pete & Childhood

  1. 1) I totally catch up on blog posts while sitting on the toilet, so glad to know I’m not the only one who does this!
    2) My friend was just telling me about Black Pete, who I had never heard of and am horrified by (because of the racism), so I’m looking forward to reading your posts about this subject!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sheena. I’d say “I’m glad I can enlighten you” but it’s obviously an aspect of my culture I am not particularly proud of. Actually, it’s not even the “black face” tradition itself that brings a blush to my face.
      What really truly horrifies me is the way my compatriots have been trying (and failing) to defend it…

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