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Weird Holiday: The Trouble With Sinterklaas

December 5, 2013

Sinterklaas is one of the world’s most controversial holidays
but you’ve probably never heard of it.

sinterklaasOne of the ways that Santa Claus is able to travel all around the world on Christmas Eve is by cutting corners. For instance, he doesn’t widely visit homes in Europe’s “low countries.” Instead, a much skinnier gift-giver covers those regions. His name is Sinterklaas (or just “Sint”). He delivers presents on December 5, on a holiday also called Sinterklaas, to all the good boys and girls…who live in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Instead of a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer, Sint rides a white horse to make his toy deliveries. And instead of spending the offseason at the North Pole, Sint is said to live in Spain. And instead of arriving on a float at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to herald the beginning of the Christmas season, Sint departs Spain on a steamship and shows up at various celebrations in the middle of November. And no milk and cookies for Sint, please—Belgian and Dutch kids leave Sint’s horse a carrot in their shoes.

There’s one more big difference between Santa and Sint, and it’s the weirdest one. Santa has elves, but Sint is said to rely on the aide of several bumbling servants, all named Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete.” They’re the ones who slide up and down chimneys delivering presents, while Sint supervises.

At festivals, the Piets wear uniforms that make them look like 17th century servants, and the actors who portray them wear earrings, large, curly wigs, bright red lipstick…and cover their skin in blackface makeup.

While this custom is considered normal and inoffensive in Belgium and the Netherlands,  expats and tourists are typically shocked when they encounter a Piet in blackface. In recent years, many people, especially in the Netherlands, have begun protesting the Piets and their negative racial implications. In response, more than two million Dutch have “liked” a pro-Piet Facebook page. Piet defenders argue that they aren’t racist caricatures and that the tradition is part of a beloved holiday geared towards kids. Others say that Sint’s helpers aren’t black—that they get their dark skin from all the soot they encounter scooting through chimneys each December 5th.

Here’s humorist David Sedaris’s take on the Zwarte Piets.

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Chris C.
Chris C.

Having family who live in Austria, nearby, I have always been told that it is soot from coal mines that causes the black faces, and is therefore not racist.

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