Do Amsterdam’s Christmas Traditions Celebrate a Racist Past?
We tend to think of the Netherlands as a progressive place of bike lovers and windmills. Amsterdam’s peaceful canals are presided over by an eclectic mix of tall and narrow houses, leaning forward as if to get a better view of their bustling streets. Its equally tall and narrow citizens seem friendly and forward-thinking.
In many ways progressive Amsterdam walks the walk. The city has legalized drugs and prostitution, recognizing that their control and regulation is a far better option than encouraging illegal underground trade. Likewise their policies on same-sex marriage and euthanasia are some of the most liberal in the world.
The city’s slogan, I Amsterdam, is intended to represent their inclusiveness. It invites everyone to announce with pride: “I Am Amsterdam.”
But in December, something strange happens. There’s nothing unusual about the arrival of Sinterklaas, Dutch Santa Claus, when the Christmas season begins. It’s his helper, Zwarte Piet, that has been turning the heads and raising the eyebrows of all those who haven’t grown up with this tradition, and many who have.
Zwarte Piet literally means “Black Pete”, a traditional figure in Dutch Christmas celebrations often played by white actors in blackface. Yes, blackface. While this is shocking to many, the Netherlands seems to be oblivious.
As many critics have claimed, the historic connection between Zwarte Piet and slavery is undeniable. Black Pete is said to be a Moor brought to the Netherlands on a ship from Spain. A whole boat of Black Petes; and a white captain.
So, do Amsterdam’s Christmas traditions celebrate a racist past?
I have an idea of what the rest of the world thinks (take Britain, for instance). However, I wanted to find out for myself what the Dutch think. So I travelled to Amsterdam for Christmas 2014.
I found myself in a modest red brick house in a small village called Blaricum outside of Amsterdam, sitting around the dinner table on Christmas Eve with a mix of residents from Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands.
I had only to utter the words Zwarte Piet and the table erupted in animated argument about the controversial figure:
It’s not offensive any more than celebrating Christmas is offensive to Pagans, it’s just the Dutch tradition. – UK national / Dutch resident
How can you deny the obvious connection to slavery? Zwarte Piets aren’t helpers, they’re slaves! – Dutch national / world traveller
But growing up you never would have said Zwarte Piet had anything to do with race. They say he’s black because of the soot from the chimney. – UK national / Dutch resident
Using the ‘excuse’ that he’s black because he’s dirty makes it even worse! I’m surprised this isn’t more of a controversial issue in Holland. – UK national / UK resident
I just find it so incongruous that such a progressive country in all other ways could carry on dressing up in blackface to this day. It’s bizarre. – UK national / Canadian resident
Well, we had golliwogs in England as kids didn’t we? They were just toys to us, nobody thought any differently. – UK national / Canadian resident
Around our multicultural table, opinion was clearly divided – but it didn’t appear to be along geographical lines. Instead, the older generation tended to raise points in defense of the tradition while the younger generation criticized it avidly.
Interestingly, those of the younger generation that had grown up with the tradition were amongst the most outspoken critics, while those of the older generation that had immigrated to the Netherlands but never grown up with the tradition were keen to voice the defensive angle.
Will Black Pete return?
Despite several murmurings that the tradition of Black Pete needs to change to reflect modern attitudes toward slavery and racism, this Dutch Christmas tradition marches on largely unscathed.
As the Netherlands’ majority blonde floppy-haired population enjoys their oliebollen (Dutch donuts) and gluhwein (mulled wine) this winter, I can’t help wondering whether Zwarte Piet has an expiration date, or whether he’ll be back for years to come.