This essay was published in the Manila Standard Today on Christmas Eve, 24 December 2011.
“Christmas comes early to the Netherlands” is probably the most exhausted cliché, christening every article ever written on the Dutch yuletide season. In fact, to the millions of jolly little children waiting to open their presents in the Netherlands, Christmas day comes three weeks too late. Though this practice may seem strange to most, the fact is that the ritual of gift giving historically originated not from the pilgrimage of the Three Kings, but rather from Father Christmas himself. Interestingly, for the Dutch, Sinterklaas arrives in mid-November.
Not unlike his North American counterpart, Sinterklaas is a white-bearded, kind-hearted old man clothed in red. However, the similarity in appearance ends there, as this solemnly vested Sint Nikolaas closely resembles an archbishop, complete with the ceremonial miter and staff. Indeed, his tall, considerably slim stature is a far cry from the plump, rose-cheeked, cola-loving Santa whom we have all come to know.
The arrival of Sinterklaas is a jaunty affair of national importance. Crowds of enthusiasts, accompanied by their nostalgic (if not exhausted) parents, gather at the port to welcome the Sint with pomp, pageantry and in-depth media coverage. As Dutch lore dictates, Sinterklaas originally hails from Asia Minor (Turkey) and travels to the Netherlands by ship from his permanent residence in Spain. He then tours the countryside on horseback, visiting children from city to city, making a list and checking it twice. At present, the Sint’s tight schedule includes a royal appearance with the young Dutch princesses as well as stopovers in Belgium, French Flanders and the outlying territories of the former Dutch Empire (including South Africa, Suriname and Indonesia).
The culmination of these festivities is marked by the celebration of Sinterklaasavond (Saint Nicholas Eve) on the 5th of December. As the forbearer to Christmas Eve, the evening’s rituals are somewhat similar. Upon the Sint’s arrival on Dutch soil, each child puts one shoe at the foot of the fireplace (or central heating unit) and stuffs it with a carrot or hay as a treat for Amerigo, Sinterklaas’ steed. After much merriment, poetry and songs, the children are off to bed and awaken the next morning to find a sack full of gifts and their shoes filled with candy. By then, Sinterklaas would have slipped quietly into the night, only to return the next year.
What appears to be a rich fairytale tradition is made even more interesting with the inclusion of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Parallel to Santa’s elves, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) serve as the Sint’s entourage, accompanying him on his annual state visit with a dusting of pepernoten (small cookies made with cinnamon, anis and clove). They are commonly dressed in bright, lace-collared, 17th century page costumes, sporting feathered hats and black leather shoes. Known in former times as the Sint’s enforcers, the Piets administer treats to the sweet and spanks to the spoiled. Armed with a whip fashioned out of willow, it is said that they punish the naughty with a good lashing. If this is still insufficient for a child to make straight his ways, the Piets might even go as far as stuffing the brats in a burlap sack and taking them back to Spain.
Nowadays, Zwarte Piet is marred by controversy. It is not so much the malevolent child abuse, which is more folklore than fact. Rather, it has more to do with the Piets’ cartoonish appearance – a blackened face, curly, afro-like hair, pearly whites and thick, bright red lipstick. Since the Sint has his historical roots in Turkey, his companions being of Moorish decent is a sound explanation; hence the Zwart in Zwarte Piet. Still, when Dutch (Caucasian) men and women paint their faces black, wear kinky wigs, ruby lipstick and dress up in gaudy outfits, a few raised eyebrows is unavoidable.
The Dutch insist that climbing the dirt and soot-lined chimneys result in the Piets having blackened faces. Those who find these kooky characters offensive claim that this argument is quite weak. Why then are their suits immaculately clean? Considering their slapstick likeness, the Piets resemble a stereotypical, caricature version of a black person. To add insult to injury, the crowds of children gathering to pay homage to Sinterklaas are all dressed in their miniature Zwarte Piet costumes, making an extra effort to apply the iconic black face paint. Sadly, despite being an all-time favorite holiday ritual, this practice has been the subject of racial protests from the Dutch immigrant population, particularly those with African origins.
Be that as it may, this debate is better left uninitiated. The arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is, after all, a time for celebration. It commemorates the feast day of Sint Nikolaas, the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. More importantly, it is a time for the gathering of family, for gift giving, merriment, poetry and songs, delicious warme chocolade melk (hot chocolate milk), pepernoten, speculaas (winter spice biscuits) and decadent, chocolate alphabet letters.
On any other day, the line between political correctness and cultural affairs may be drawn. If done properly, it can spark a healthy discussion on culture, identity and race, thus enriching cultural understanding and social values. With regard to Sinterklaas however, it is best to leave your arguments at the door, lest you want Zwarte Piet to take you back to Spain. ✌