On Saturday, 6th of December was marked the feast day of Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands and in Flanders. This day is very special for many Dutch children and the answer is pretty clear: in comparison with other young Europeans, which are getting their presents from the Santa Claus on the 25th of December, Dutch kids are waiting for their gifts from Saint Nicholas. According to a popular story of Jan Schenkman from the 19th century “Saint Nicolas and his servant”, Saint Nicholas (or Dutch variant Sinterklaas) is coming from Spain on the steamboat with a cane and sack accompanied by Zwarte Piet (English variant - Black Pete). He is wandering on the roofs of the houses and is throwing the packages with the presents through the chimneys.
During the last years this children fairy tale was surrounded by huge scandal in the Netherlands and outside the country. The problem is in the assistant of Saint Nicholas Black Pete who appears with painted in red lips, blackened face and wearing black frizzy wigs with huge round earrings. According to one of the interpretations of the legend, Black Piet is black because he is travelling through the chimneys, helping Saint Nicholas distributing the presents. On the other hand the story of Jan Schenkman introduces us Black Pete as a servant, commonly interpreted to be a Moor. That’s why this beloved tradition is perceived by some people as a racist stereotype, although according to the latest polls Dutch people had never associated Black Pete with a black person, and many of them can’t perceive why one of the most tolerant countries in Europe can be criticized by cultivating in their children latent racism. Eurostat statistics shows us that around 11% of the population in the Netherlands was foreign-born in 2010. But most of them have received Dutch citizenship that can prove a successful integration policy in the Netherlands.
In January 2013 the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sent a letter to the Dutch government expressing concern about the effect of Black Pete on the Dutch society. “The character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism”. The Dutch government responded to this later stating that it was aware about the difference in opinions concerning the Saint Nicholas’ tradition and Black Pete role in it. Dutch officials are highly committed to combat discrimination in all forms.
The discussions about the role of Black Pete and frequent demands to abolish his role during the feast created a hot “pro and contra” discussion in the Netherlands, when millions liked the Facebook page in support for Black Pete in 2013. During the official arrival of Saint Nicholas on a white horse in Gouda on the 15th of November this year, around 60 demonstrators against Black Pete were detained by police. As stated Police spokeswoman Yvette Verboon, protesters were detained as they were in the center of the celebrity but not at the two locations, which were prepared for them. One day before the arrival of the Saint Nicholas, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte gave his weekly press-conference, where he was asked about his opinion concerning the Black Pete. "Personally, I think he can stay black. But this is a matter for the community. It is not a task for politics. As you know, I'm in favor of small government”.
Earlier this year the well-known Dutch producer Sunny Bergman published a teaser “Our colonial hangover ” for her film about racism and Black Pete “Black as red”, which was presented on the 1st of December on the Dutch TV channel VPRO and can be also available on YouTube. The teaser was filmed in a London park, where a person, dressed like Black Pete, was walking through the park and succeeded to frighten the passers-by. Londoners were shocked by Black Pete and some people exclaimed: "This is offensive, this is terrible."
This year Dutch compatriots in Sweden decided not to present Black Pete with black paint on his face. The Netherlands’ highest Court refused to participate in the battle around the Black Pete and it can be a right decision. The tradition should not be prohibited as there should be a dialogue in the society due to which some changes can occur but peacefully and consciously. Pam Evenhuis, the head of Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade committee in his interview for NPR brought a very imported idea: "The Netherlands is a country where change goes gradually. We're not changing from one day to the next. We don't have a supreme court that will make far-reaching decisions. Here, we have what we call a dialogue culture." Some Black Petes this year started to have a slight gray coal dust on their face and refused to wear red lipstick. There is also a talk to create multicolor Petes that would still be a good tradition for Dutch kids.