When people ask me about my favourite holiday, my answer is Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas), even though I haven’t celebrated it in 10 years. Holidays like Christmas don’t bring me as much excitement as it does for other people. But if there’s one thing I’d like children to experience it’s Sinterklaas, because it was one of the best things in my childhood. Sinterklaas is a children’s holiday in the Netherlands. Every year, the Saint and his helpers (Petes) come to the Netherlands on their steamboat. This event happens every year; the Saint and his Petes arrive in a Dutch city and walk the parade while greeting children and handing out Pepernoten. Once the Saint has arrived, children can place their shoe near their fireplace at home overnight, and the next day, they might have been given a small present, Pepernoten or something else. This continues every day until the 5th of December, Pakjesavond (present night) when the Saint and Petes deliver a big bag of presents (or one big present) for each child. In the weeks running up to the Saint’s arrival, and all the way through until the 5th of December, the Dutch Television broadcasts a special ‘St Nicholas News’ channel every day. After the Saint has arrived in the country, (in the two to three weeks running up to the 5th of December), primary schools often organise a Saint Nicholas day at school, where the children get to meet the Saint. During the Saint’s arrival, Pete often causes some sort of accident, which causes ladders, the police or firemen to get involved, and a lot of laughter from the spectators, the children (it’s all a (funny) show ofc). In my school, we were also given ‘Pete training’ and a certificate after completion, which was a fun sort of PE class where, amongst other things, we ‘learned’ how to climb stairs to deliver gifts through chimneys. At home, my sister and I would sing songs before placing our shoe near the fireplace and we also wrote letters to the Saint with my dad and got replies from the Saint (my dad). Once I stopped believing that he was real, St. Nicholas would be celebrated by doing something that is similar to Secret Santa. Everyone draws names and buys gifts for the name they drew. However, Secret St. Nicholas is different because every gift has to be accompanied by (or preferably hidden in) a homemade personalised handcrafted item, such as a boat, or a dog, a piano made out of paper, for example. I love St. Nicholas because it has brought me so much joy and still continues to bring joy to other children.
This is what St. Nicholas means to me. A celebration of joy. It was always the best part of winter and arguably even more exciting than my birthday. But in the past few years, St. Nicholas has been surrounded (and for the outsider overshadowed) by the Black Pete debate. This is because Pete, Saint’s helpers, are originally black (have thick red lips, curly black hair and large golden earrings) and this is seen as racist. I personally agree that it is racist because the Black Petes are Saint’s helpers (or rather… slaves… as they were depicted in the past), they are often portrayed as clumsy or stupid, while the Saint is a white guy on a horse. I mean… yeah, nowadays we probably don’t mean to be racist, and Black Pete is loved but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t harm people of colour. So now, for the past few years, there has been a debate with people that are against Black Pete, and people that are in favour (and who seem to think it would damage our Dutch identity and traditions if we change the black colour) of Black Pete. As a result, demonstrations happen during the parades of the Saint’s arrival, last year people blocked highways to stop protestors from arriving at their destination and the first thing you hear when St. Nicholas and his Petes are mentioned nowadays is… Should Pete be Black?
I am so tired of this debate and I am ashamed to mention the Petes and even the holiday to my friends because the Petes are still Black and I don’t think this is okay. One of the reasons why people are against Black Pete is that his portrayal (the colour of his skin) can be offending to people with a darker skin colour. It has been reported that children with darker skin have been teased and made fun of by having been given names such as ‘Black Pete,’ suggesting that Black Pete is looked down upon. On the other side, in my perception, what seems to be the main argument in favour of Black Pete is that he has always been black and therefore he should stay that way. Very simply put, this is the debate that keeps flaring up every year St. Nicholas comes around and I do not understand why we are still discussing this.
I don’t understand why Pete has to be black. If his colour is offending people in our society, then we should listen to them. They are Dutch. They are a part of our country. Everyone should be able to celebrate this holiday without the fear of being confronted by racism. Additionally, Pete can be white too. As a child, I was made to believe that if I trained to be a Pete, then I could become one, and I and the majority of my class were white. There is this other argument that Pete is black because he comes in through the chimney to deliver gifts but a face wouldn’t go completely black just from that. So now, some city’s have introduced Soot Spot Petes, in which his face is painted with some black spots as if he has just come down through a chimney. Yet, that’s not black enough for some people?
What bothers me the most is that this argument is an adult argument, while St. Nicholas is a children’s celebration. Most children will not care whether Pete is black or not. It’s not about his colour. It’s about his presence, the silly jokes that he makes, the Pepernoten he spreads and gifts that he brings. This debate can ruin St. Nicholas as it no longer seems to be about joy, and only about the colour of Black Pete. Why can’t he be white? Why isn’t he Pete enough if he only has Soot Spots? I wish we could go back to simply celebrating St Nicholas and his Petes, but this time, without Petes face being Black.
PS: Here’s my sister and I dressed up as Petes