He travels from Spain all the way to Amsterdam, up the Amstel to the Maritime Museum (Scheepfahrtmuseum): every year on the Saturday after the celebration of “Sint Maarten” (Saint Martin) on November 11th, Saint Nicholas traditionally arrives in Amsterdam with his helpers – the “Zwarte Pieten” (“Black Piets”). Although Sinterklaas is being celebrated on December 5th, his arrival in mid-November is just as important as the evening when the children finally get to open their little presents from Sinterklaas. Children and their parents are excitingly waiting to see Saint Nicholas and his helpers arrive and to join him in his parade through Amsterdam. There is happy music. There are happy people watching his arrival from their own boat – whole families gathering on the Amstel. Saint Nicholas is waving from his big boat, surrounded by his friendly helpers – funny people in colorful clothes. Many of them have painted their faces black.
Although the traditional celebration of Sinterklaas is very important to Dutch people, the population is split by a big debate. The “Zwarte Pieten”, shown with black faces, colorful clothes, big red lips and curly hair, who are meant as friendly helpers of Sinterklaas since the mid-19th century are nowadays seen as a racist stereotype of inhabitants of the former colonies. An obsolete and discriminating caricature? Sinterklaas, as a white man, accompanied by many black helpers is seen very critically in the historical context of European colonialism.
Today, the arrival of Sinterklaas is not only awaited by children anymore, but also by protestors and political organizations who demand a “makeover” of the Zwarte Piet. Police groups are being prepared for any kind of dispute. Protestors are in favor of Piets of all colors and patterns – red, green, yellow, blue, striped or dotted – to fight stereotypical racism. Many people do not understand their anger. In their opinion, Zwarte Pieten are not meant to discriminate anyone, they are meant as happy helpers that bring joy and happiness to the celebration of Saint Nicholas’ arrival. They are tradition and children love them. In fact, some argue that children don’t even question the blackfacing of the Zwarte Piet – they would not see them as a stereotypic illustration of black people, but as a person who’s face is covered in grime and smut due to their entrance through the chimney to bring the presents. But if children don’t even care about the skin color, why do people hesitate to change it if there is a group in society that feels discriminated?
Although the debate about the “Zwarte Pieten” lasts since many years, it seems to be even more in the focus of society in 2020. The Black-Lives-Matter-movement has thematized the question of the “traditional” blackfacing as a Zwarte Piet even stronger than ever before – the debate intensifies every year. Facebook has now stated to forbid the upload of photos and graphics that show people who colored their faces black.
Talking to Dutch people of different ages it is easy to see that opinions split in everyday life. A Dutch mother with two adopted children of a darker skin color who are now in their mid-twenties is very happy about the movement – she always tried to buy them books and toys showing people of all ethnicities to make them feel more included. The Black-Lives-Matter-Movement gives her hope, that society makes another step towards multiculturalism and away from racism. She is very optimistic about the developments.
Others accept the changes of the appearance of the Zwarte Piet, although they do not see a necessity and some people just want to keep their traditions.
When traditions and the present collide, the opinions of society collide even more. Are people overreacting? Are people underreacting? Can we talk about a harmless tradition if people feel discriminated? Is it that easy or necessary to change traditions?
Even the UN has stated that the appearance of Zwarte Piet should be changed in order to dispose the negative and discriminating stereotype, but does an international force have the right to abolish a national tradition, whose intent never was to discriminate anyone, but to make people happy?
It seems to be an individual dilemma, that transferred to society – a dilemma being even more complicated through emotions, moral and the rationality of solving a debate.
The dilemma holds on. Although there aren't going to be any big arrival parties due to the Covid-19 restrictions in the Netherlands, people are still discussing. A topic being so important to a nation, that it won’t be displaced by a global pandemic.