The arrival of Saint Nicolas (#sinterklaasintocht) in the Netherlands three weeks ago became a worldwide trending topic. Americans even seemed to think it was a terrorist code. Others found it hilarious that they could be so paranoid. But once people started realising what the fuss was all about the subject switched to the question of whether this children’s festivity is racist.
This all takes a little bit of explaining. The festive season in the Netherlands kicks off with the arrival of the former bishop of Myra (in Turkey) from Spain by steamboat accompanied by a number of assistants called Black Peter around three weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Day (6 December). On the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, the Dutch exchange presents with a rhyme for the receiver or package the presents as ‘suprises’ so they look like something they are not. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCUHTDrca4s
The issue of racism arises almost every year and some schools in the past have attempted to be politically correct by introducing rainbow-coloured Peters. In Vancouver, the debate got so heated, it led to the festivity being cancelled altogether for the Dutch community.
Video footage on YouTube of the heavy-handed arrest of four demonstrators wearing T-shirts with the text “Black Peter is racism” all contributed to the discussion. On a Dutch public radio programme, Freedom Party MP Hero Brinkman refused to comment directly on the case and as a former policeman he defended the actions of the police in general.
Now it is the day before Saint Nicholas’ Day. Traditionally in the Netherlands the day on which the Dutch exchange presents. Or it would be if they hadn’t done so already. Being a pragmatic lot, many Dutch families will have celebrated “pakjesavond” or parcel evening at the weekend.
Nevertheless, motoring organisations still reported early traffic jams this evening as those pragmatic Dutch jumped into their vehicles as soon as they can – taking advantage of their employers’ generosity for letting them off early. After all it is only once a year.
It is the same pragmatism that enables most Dutch people to simply ignore the racism issue. Nevertheless, debates on whether or not the tradition is racist have been held up and down the country. Social media and internet forums have led to many more voices than normal being heard from people who aren’t so pleased with the connotations of white people blacking up and donning wigs with black curly hair. Something that hasn’t been seen in the UK since the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ was taken off air and ‘gollywogs’ were banished from jam jars. These were also once considered innocent forms of entertainment until someone pointed out they stereotyped black people. If you ask any Dutch person they may tell you that the Black Peter has nothing to do with slavery and originates from the Moors as Saint Nic comes from Spain or that his colour comes from shimmying down the chimney.
The Parool reports that the Saint Nicholas association wants to get the festivity onto the UNESCO world heritage list – which would protect the tradition. Obviously the racism debate is felt to be a bigger threat than the fact that a few years ago more and more Dutch people seemed to be dropping Saint Nic in favour of his alter ego Santa Claus.
And tonight, all hell has broken out on Twitter after the “Sinterklaas” edition of the world’s most politically correct children’s programme Seasame Street was scrapped to give more airtime to a parliamentary inquiry on the 2008 economic crisis. I don’t think the former minister of finance Wouter Bos was the Sinterklaas parents were banking on.