Two families' perspectives on a changing tradition
The crowd of kids cheers in excitement when the white horse passes by, his rider’s red robe and golden staff shimmering in the sun. He is followed by a group of colourfully dressed helpers. Frizzy hair sticks out under their funny hats. White smiles shine through their blackface makeup while they goof around, throwing Pepernoten towards the cheering kids.
Kimia & Javaneh
Kimia, who is thirteen, and her mother Javaneh talk about watching the parade pass by with excitement and fascination. The family is from Iran and moved to The Hague a few days before the Sinterklaas arrival last year. “We had no idea what it was about.” At home they sat together and did some research.
Jibbe & Anne
About an hour or so away, Jibbe, who is nine, and his mother Anne sip tea as they share their memories of celebrating Sinterklaas since Anne was a little girl. It is a tradition that has been part of their family for as long as they can remember. “I always find myself excited for when it’s coming again,'' Anne says.
Sinterklaas has been a tradition in the Netherlands since the Middle Ages. Every year, somewhere around mid-November, Sinterklaas arrives on a steamboat from Spain, accompanied by his helpers, the “Zwarte Pieten”, or Black Petes. On the 5th of December, Anne & Jibbe always get together with family to celebrate.
Zwarte Piet is a character that was first introduced into the tradition in 1850, when he appeared as Sinterklaas’ “knecht”, or servant, in a children’s book. Over the years, Zwarte Piet has gone through many different phases, while the appearance of Sinterklaas has remained mostly constant.
When asked to describe Zwarte Piet, Jibbe seems confused at first. “From the inside or outside?” he asks. His face painted black doesn’t seem to stand out to Jibbe. He is much more interested in their funny clothing, and most importantly: presents.
This year, Kimia and her mother watched the parade again, but it was different.
A rise in protests against Zwarte Piet has led to some changes. Municipalities and companies have introduced a new character: Roetveegpiet, or “Soot Piet.” Soot Piet only has a few soot stripes on his face, which still fits the story that Piet is black from going down the chimney to deliver presents. The popular TV show Het Sinterklaasjournaal (“Sinterklaas News”) has also jumped on the bandwagon of Roetveegpiet.
Anne also talks about the changes she sees in Zwarte Piet. She represents the growing number of parents in the Netherlands that see the different representations, like Soot Piet, as a good thing.
Kimia is thirteen and lived most of her life abroad. Since moving to the Netherlands, she is attending the International School of The Hague. In school the Zwarte Piet discussion with her classmates is very much alive.
Kimia avoids the discussion but can see both sides of the coin.
Kimia believes the tradition was not intended to be racist. In fact, during the first Sinterklaas celebrations, most Piets were white. So, would kids even notice a change of Zwarte Piet? “Probably not”, Kimia says. The most important thing for them are the Pepernoten and the presents. At her school the Piets don’t wear blackface and nobody cares.
Starting to get a little bit uncomfortable, Anne tries to recall a story about her husband’s friend.
Kimia and Javaneh don’t celebrate Sinterklaas. As outsiders, they try to understand both sides of the debate. But they do find it important to discuss the Zwarte Piet issue. It could help kids to learn about racism that happened in the past. And who knows, maybe people become more open minded and open to change in other areas.
For Anne and Jibbe, Sinterklaas is one of their favourite traditions. They love both Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. If anything, they prove that the appearance of Zwarte Piet does not matter to most children. “It wouldn’t change the way we celebrate Sinterklaas at all.”