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.

Article 1

Two of my previous blog posts started out as the introductory words to this one but they ended up getting lives of their own. Hopefully this third time will be a charm and help me get this story out of my head.

It all started when the annual Black Pete discussion reached its peak this last year. I had already decided I would not avoid confrontation on this matter any longer and would ALWAYS point out to the other why I felt Black Pete was indeed a racist element in our culture and that we were making fools of ourselves by denying it.

Sylvana.pngA Dutch celebrity that became very vocal on this matter is a lady called Sylvana Simons. I remembered her merely as a charming TV show host, that started out on a Dutch music channel called TMF. When she started to become a regular on Holland’s most viewed talk show and vented her thoughts about prevalent racism in our society people went crazy… CRAZY!!

She started to receive death threats straight away, which is apparently the thing to do these days when you disagree with someone… Facebook events were dedicated to her, with “Wave Sylvana goodbye”-day as the most popular one. People all around me thought the idea was a hilarious initiative: just gather at the airport holding sarcastic banners, to see Sylvana off because “she didn’t appear to like it here anyway”.

But it’s all good! Just tongue-in-cheek banter; no ill intent, nothing personal. 

Sylvana wasn’t even going to be at the airport! So why would she even feel threatened by this frivolous idea?

Oh sure…. that’s just typical that she would use this to appoint herself the victim role again.

…suggesting they were threatening to have her deported, was she? Why would she even think that?

…we were just kidding…!

sylvana uitzwaaidag.png

…and I was completely dumbfounded by it.

What shocked me the most was how unanimous this sentiment seemed to be. People that I had always considered to be progressive, nuanced and moderate in their opinions would say things about this woman that made my jaw drop and showed me how extremely deeply rooted this problem really was… And it only proved her right, too!art-1.jpg

Sylvana then went into politics, first with an existing (and pretty controversial) party called Denk. Shortly before the end of 2016 and with only a few months left to get a full program together Sylvana started her own political party: Artikel 1, referring to the first article in the Dutch constitution, stating everyone staying in this country is to be treated fairly and equally, prohibiting any form of discrimination.

I was actually quite excited about Sylvana’s new political party and still have her in my top three candidates for upcoming Wednesday’s elections (all though not on number 1, I must admit).

It has been so difficult for me to understand why my compatriots have so little love for her, so these past few weeks I have made it my mission to figure it out.

I asked my closest friends to explain to me why their knickers got caught up in a twist every time I mentioned her name. They all seemed to agree that the way she brought her message across was counterproductive and divisive in itself. They said they did feel the Netherlands had a racism problem but that she was only pouring oil on the fire. They said it wasn’t WHAT she said but HOW she said it that bugged them.

I thought this was quite interesting, as people seem to use the opposite argument to explain why Geert Wilders is an acceptable option; they are willing to forgive him for his rude tone because they agree with the underlying message.

Why didn’t this logic apply to Sylvana, then? Her gender? Her race? Or is she really so much ruder than him?

When my boyfriend’s brother was at our place the other day and I once again got that look of disgust when I said I thought she was actually a pretty awesome power woman, I grabbed the opportunity to get some clarity.

I asked him to show me what I was missing. I admitted I didn’t watch any of the Dutch TV talk shows and that I may well have missed the bits in which she said such nasty stuff that made her deserve the cyberbuckets of shit that had been poured out over her since then.

So I watched interviews in which she definitely came across as bitchy. I saw her get angry and (unnecessarily) defensive. I saw how she interrupted other people at the table to ask them if they even heard what they were saying. I saw why people might find her annoying.

But nothing that I saw or heard justified how we were treating her. Nothing brought me that big eye-opening revelation I was hoping for. It turned out that it really was as bad as I had feared.

A woman… no… a BLACK woman… no… a BLACK DUTCH WOMAN was telling us the backbone of our Dutch identity was rotten and that we should be ashamed of ourselves.

The chapters of our nation’s history that we had so skillfully “re-interpreted” were being shown in a very uncomfortable light.

guilty dogIt kind of reminds me of one of Cesar Millan’s lessons. Yes, I am actually referencing the dog whisperer here… And yes, I am comparing the Dutch to the “bad dog” in the equation. Or more: I am comparing the Dutch to a dog that has been showing the same behavior for far too long and has a panicky fit the first time it is asked to show different behavior.

We are facing the wall, trembling slightly… not knowing what to do now… Avoiding all eye-contact. How do we go on from here? How do we change the behavior we’ve always shown? It’s uncomfortable. It’s uncertain. Who knows what else we might have to change once we allow this!

I think we all need a pep talk.

Writing a conclusion to this story is making me kind of nervous…

I would like to say tomorrow (election day) might be the nudge we need to get our minds back in motion. To straighten our backs and lift our glances back up from the floor. To admit that we were wrong but that we know better now.

Tomorrow is a new day.