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The Feast of Sinterklaas: A Dutch National Holiday

Kimberly Martis is a Dutch Caribbean freelance writer. She writes about culture, beauty, tv-shows, music, movies, odd jobs and fiction.

You might have heard about Sinterklaas (not to be confused with Santa Claus). Sinterklaas is an old man that looks similar to Santa Claus but is definitely his own person. Every year he and his "Black Petes" get on their boat and come to the Netherlands. When they arrive, they are met by thousands of people. Little children, teenagers, and adults all wait to greet them. And then the party begins.

*Content Warning: Blackface

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive to greet the revelers.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive to greet the revelers.

Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas is an old man that has a long white beard and white hair. He’s very friendly and everybody loves him. And they have a good reason for that. He brings joy and happiness by giving out gifts and candy. Besides that, he brings his Black Petes with him and they are the life of the party.

Sinterklaas has a golden cane that he takes with him wherever he goes. Another item that he brings with him whenever he comes to the Netherlands is his book. This book is very important as it has all the children's names in it. Besides their names, there are notes in it concerning the behavior of the children. Based on this information Sinterklaas decides if the children will receive a gift.

Sinterklaas also has a horse called Amerigo. Amerigo is very popular with the kids and they often feed him carrots as a treat. Sinterklaas rides on Amerigo when he and his Black Petes deliver the gifts.

This photo is of a Dutch reveler dressed as Zwarte Piet aka Black Pete.

This photo is of a Dutch reveler dressed as Zwarte Piet aka Black Pete.

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete)

Zwarte Piet which literally means Black Pete is Sinterklaas’ worker. The Black Petes do all of the hard work. This includes getting Sinterklaas to the Netherlands, packing all the toys, delivering the toys, handing out candy and more. There are more than 100.000 Black Petes. They all have a different job and skillset. Here are some of the most popular Black Petes and their main tasks:

Pakjes Piet (Package Pete)

He is in charge of the packages. He makes sure that there are enough packages for all the kids and makes sure that the kids get the toy that they want. He also makes sure that all the other Black Petes deliver the packages at the right homes.

Hoofd Piet (Head Pete in charge)

Head Pete in charge is Sinterklaas’ right-hand man. All the other Black Petes answer to him. You can always find him besides Sinterklaas. When Sinterklaas isn’t available Head Pete in charge is the go-to man and he makes all the decisions.

Strooi Piet (Sharing Pete)

Sharing Pete is a black Pete that shares the candy with everybody. He has a big bag full of candy and throws the candy everywhere he goes. If you are standing all the way in the back you will still get some candy as he just keeps on throwing the candy in the air until everyone gets some.

Blackface and Racial Controversy

There is a lot of controversy surrounding Black Pete. One of the reasons for this is that Black Pete is blackface. The majority of the Dutch citizens do not see Black Pete as blackface. They see it as a caricature that is a part of the Dutch culture. They credit his appearance (black skin, curly/frizzy hair, big red lips, and golden slave earrings) to him getting dirty from going down the chimney when he delivers gifts. There is a growing group that does see black Pete as blackface. They have been advocating to change the appearance of Black Pete. They can’t imagine someone's skin turning completely black from going down the chimney. Besides that, going down the chimney doesn’t explain the other features. Another reason why some are pleading to change Black Pete's appearance is because of the comparison that is being made between Black Pete and black people. Unfortunately, not all black children can enjoy the holiday in peace. Often, they get compared to the caricature and get called Black Pete. Which makes them feel uncomfortable and sad. This results in some of them not wanting to celebrate the holiday. And this has resulted in some parents pulling their children out of school on the day of the celebration of the holiday.

Another result of all the controversy around Black Pete’s appearance are protests. There have been many protests where people were pleading to change Black Pete’s appearance. These protests were supposed to be non-violent. Unfortunately, most of these protests turned violent. One of the reasons that these protests turned violent is that people who don’t want to change Black Pete’s appearance started confronting the protesters. And from there, things got out of hand. It’s a shame that every year the protests turn violent and the police needs to get involved as violence is not the answer.

As a result of the protests, a few cities decided that it was time to change Black Pete’s appearance. Instead of using blackface they now put black swoot wipes on their faces. As the swoot swipes fit better into the narrative of Black Pete being black from going down the chimney. This did not go over well with a lot of people as they prefer Black Pete to stay blackface.

Some Dutch celebrities have also spoken out against Black Pete. One of them is the singer Anouk. Unfortunately, she received a lot of backlash after speaking out against Black Pete. This resulted in threats towards her and her children. Another Dutch celebrity that spoke out against Black Pete is Ronnie Flex. As a black man himself, he also suffered from racism based on the caricature of Black Pete during Sinterklaas. He has a huge following in the Netherlands but after speaking out against Black Pete a lot of them turned against him. His social media floated with hateful comments, racist remarks and threats. After the holiday was over things settled down and went back to normal. Of course, there are also Dutch celebrities who are pro-Black Pete. Unfortunately, the majority of Dutch celebrities haven’t taken a stance in the Black Pete discussion.

Eating candy is a popular way to celebrate the feast of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.

Eating candy is a popular way to celebrate the feast of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.

Candy

Candy is a big part of the holiday. Months before the holiday starts grocery stores start to sell candy that are a part of the holiday. Some of the most popular candy that belongs to the holiday are chocolate letters and spiced biscuits.

Spice Nuts

Spice nuts are small round biscuits. You can get them in the original taste or covered in chocolate.

Chocolate Letters

A chocolate letter is a chocolate in the shape of a letter. These chocolate letters come in all of the 26 letters of the alphabet. The chocolate letters come in dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate. You can get them plain or embellished with all different kinds of nuts like almond.

Spiced Biscuits

During the holiday there are spiced biscuits in all different shapes and forms. A lot of spiced biscuits have the shape of Sinterklaas’ hat, his whole silhouette or anything else belonging to the holiday.

Carrots

You might not think that a carrot is a candy but it is. At least to Amerigo (Sinterklaas’ horse) One of the traditions is to put a shoe in front of the fireplace so when Black Pete comes down the chimney, he can put your gift(s) in it. People often put a carrot in the shoe for Sinterklaas’ horse Schimmel. This way he has something to snack on.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Kimberly Martis

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