Many have said that the United State’s Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicolas, which may be true. But did you know that there is another figure that our rosy-cheeked, gift-giving fantasy is based on?
I introduce to you the original Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, shown on the right. The similarity is rather obvious, all the way down to his rosy cheeks. Sinterklaas, who can be traced all the way back to the 16th century, is another fictional character who gives gifts to children. Still celebrated in The Netherlands, Sinterklaas has come under a bit of scrutiny recently. The reason being that his helpers, equivalent to Santa’s elves, look like this:
Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is Sinterklaas’ fictional servant. Imagine Elves being normal-sized dark-skinned people, and that’s what Zwarte Piet is to Sinterklaas. Also, just like elves, there is more than one Zwarte Piet, as Sinterklaas has an entire group of servants. During events like parades, some wear black makeup (also called blackface) to play the character of Zwarte Piet. Blackface goes all the way back to minstrel shows, which depicted African-Americans as unintelligent sub-human beings.
To add to this, in celebrations such as parades, Sinterklaas arrives on a white horse while his blackface servants in a boat, here to serve the wealthy white man.
The Netherlands has come under scrutiny of late because of their continuous celebration of Sinterklaas in spite of Zwarte Piet. A 2015 TIME.com article explains the campaign to ban the minstrel-like figure. Another article, from the Washington Post, describes how the Dutch are slowly realizing that their celebration is indeed racist.
Solutions for Zwarte Piet have been proposed. Some have suggested that Zwarte Piet should be of a different color, like blue or green, in an effort to make the servants look less human-like. Others have said that since Sinterklaas has many servants, each one should be of a different race, allowing for diversity in the workforce. While this would not challenge the fact that the wealthy man giving gifts is still as white as one can be, I think that those solutions are definitely a step in the right direction.
The Dutch, however, are very opposed to the idea of changing the Zwarte Piet tradition. Businesses, I am certain, are not in approval because of the amount of money that is made in celebration of Sinterklaas. Annual sales of merchandise – including candy, figurines, and other products that include Zwarte Piet – can reach up to 515 million euros (over 530 million US dollars), according to the aforementioned TIME.com article.
Businesses are not the only individuals holding onto Zwarte Piet. According to Reuters.com, “the majority still want Black Pete. In a survey by pollster Maurice De Hond last month, 91 percent of a representative sample of Dutch people said the tradition should not be changed to suit the tastes of a minority, and 81 percent thought it would be unacceptable to turn Pete another color”.
What are your thoughts? Is the presence of Zwarte Piet detestable, or is it a playful part of a children’s holiday? Please add your comment below!