Each November, as Americans fill up on cranberries and stuffing, the Dutch fight back the dark winter with a holiday of their own. “Sinterklaas” has roots in Christianity—Sinterklaas himself looks like a slimmer, mitre-wielding version of Santa Claus. But over time, the holiday has evolved into a secular family event that begins in mid-November and culminates on December 5, with a night known as pakjesavond (“packages evening”), when families and friends gather to read poems they’ve written about each other, give crafts they’ve made and exchange gifts. For families with young children, the festivities peak when Sinterklaas and his helpers deliver a bag of presents.
The best part is that everyone’s in on it. For three weeks, the entire country—nearly 17 million people—conspires to convince its youngest inhabitants that something magical is afoot. Parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors and older siblings keep alive the generations-old story that Sinterklaas and his helpers have arrived in the Netherlands from Spain. A nightly newscast even updates children on “Sint’s” adventures.
There’s a hitch, though: the Sint’s helpers, called the “Black Petes,” are white Dutch coated in blackface paint, lips painted bright red, topped by Afro wigs, with light-colored eyes peering out from their darkened faces. They “arrive” on a steamboat with Sinterklaas in droves, first at the national parade, then in city after city, clad in colorful satin costumes with white ruff collars and feathered hats. Though some parents explain that Pete is blackened by coal dust as he climbs down chimneys, in Jan Schenkman’s 1850 book Saint Nicholas and his Servant, which is widely regarded as the source of most modern Sinterklaas traditions, Black Pete is a servant who helps Sinterklaas on the journey from his home in Spain. After delivering presents, in generations gone by, Black Pete put naughty children in burlap sacks to take them back to Spain.
(AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
Most Dutch say that the tradition doesn’t have anything to do with racially insensitive blackface routines like, say, American comedian Al Jolson’s. They say they’re dressing up to have fun and to entertain children. Thirty-year-old performance poet and radio host Quinsy Gario doesn’t see it that way. Several years ago, his mother, “the strongest woman I know,” was cut to the quick when a colleague called her a “Black Pete.” “The moment you engage people” in a discussion about Black Pete, Gario says, “you learn so much. The tradition is ‘part and parcel’” of a culture in which “the subservience of colored people to white people needs to stop.”
Gario, who grew up in the Netherlands and Saint Martin, protested—and got arrested—at the national parade in 2011 in Dordrecht with artist Kno’ledge Cesare. In 2012, he and Barryl Biekman of the National Slavery Heritage Platform, an organization dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Dutch slave trade and colonial slavery, gave the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights a file of information about Black Pete, triggering the UN’s 2013 inquiry into the tradition. Last year, he initiated a campaign to file complaints against the Amsterdam Sinterklaas parade official.