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Sinterklaas survives controversies

6 December 2008 - Despite arson threats, anti-racist theatre, a ban on crosses and fear of harassment by Moroccan youth, Sinterklaas seems to have gotten away unscathed from his visit to Amsterdam. In Antwerp, meanwhile, ethnic minorities make friendly jokes with Sinterklaas.

In April, Rita Verdonk launched her populist party Proud of the Netherlands (TON) by attacking the 'down with us movement': "They question our Sinterklaas celebration and they want slavery monuments everywhere in order to make us look bad".

Since Verdonk's speech, criticism of the racist nature of the role of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), Sinterklaas' black little servant, seems only to have intensified, culminating in a rather sick arson threat against a number of schools in Zuidoost.

According to het Parool, a letter called Sinterklaas a 'fascist celebration that intends to brainwash people and prepare them for using mental, verbal and meaningless violence against coloured people'. The sender threatened to set fire to the entrances and windows of the schools while the children were in.

The school management told het Parool that it was surprised at the threat, since they have a 'Sinterklaas code' in place since 1999 in order to deal with sensitivities. Instead of black Pieten, they use multicoloured Pieten. Instead of singing 'His servant is laughing', kids sing 'His Piet is laughing'.

Earlier this week, Algemeen Dagblad reported that the Sinterklaas Centre uses Moroccan Pieten on visits to Amsterdam's problem areas in order to protect Sinterklaas from harassment. "The Moroccan Piet will tell the young lads in Arabic to bugger off. That works pretty well, for they are kids of 10, 11 years old", a spokesperson said.

Across Europe, Santa Claus has 'sinister helpers', der Spiegel recently observed. Germany has Knecht Ruprecht, Austria has the horned devil Krampus and France has Père Fouettard. "Brutal stuff. But in no country is the tale of Santa's diabolical sidekick as bizarre as in the Netherlands, home to Zwarte Piet".

Zwarte Piet is thought to have been invented around 1850 by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman, who wrote an illustrated children's book on Sinterklaas. This book is the first known description of aspects of the modern Sinterklaas celebration, including his arrival by steamship and Zwarte Piet's bag and rod.

Last week, a play criticising the role of Zwarte Piet premiered in Zuidoost, eliciting enthusiastic response from people of Surinamese, Antillean and African descent. However, in an opinion article in NRC Handelsblad, columnist Anil Ramdas argued that such attacks of the Sinterklaas tradition will only drive white voters into the arms of Verdonk.

In the same newspaper, journalist Herman Vuisje criticised the city of Amsterdam for stripping Sinterklaas' costume of crosses in 2006. The cross on his mitre was replaced by three St. Andrew's crosses, derived from the city's coat of arms (one might argue that this is fitting, since St Nicolas is also the patron saint of Amsterdam).

City Sint Dries Zee reportedly said that it was appropriate to remove the crosses, since Amsterdam is a multicultural society: "when I drive up the Damrak, I see a sea of mainly dark little faces". Interestingly, Vuisje notes that it used to be the Protestants who objected to Sinterklaas' Catholic symbols.

Meanwhile, the Dutch Sinterklaas controversies inspired Steven De Foer of the Belgian newspaper de Standaard to accompany Sinterklaas and two Zwarte Pieten on a visit to a multicultural neighbourhood in Antwerp. "I wonder if the same things are going on in Antwerp as in Amsterdam".

Apparently not. "Wherever Sinterklaas appears, I see only happy faces - white, black or brown. The children, but also their parents or grandparents. It's a strange sight, the Bishop of Myra surrounded by Mediterranean women with headscarves".

"Young women dressed in a more modern fashion fluently answer questions: they have all been very well-behaved, they say, really, but their giggling raises doubts as to their sincerity", De Foer observes.

St Nicolas was the bishop of Myra, in the present-day Turkey. A Turkish owner of a hardware store tells De Foer that it is strange to see how his birthday is being celebrated here. "But what do I care that he's wearing a cross on his hat? We live here. And it's a children's holiday. I don't understand people who make a problem of a religious symbol".

After Sinterklaas leaves the store, the owner calls after him: "Only three candies, Sinterklaas? Come on, and you're from Turkey, just like me. Our own people first, hey!" - appropriating an old slogan of the right-wing populist party Vlaams Belang. Bystanders appreciate the joke.

Image: Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet bagging naughty children in order to take them to Spain. From St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht (St Nicolas and his Servant) by Jan Schenkman. Koninklijke Bibliotheek

UPDATE 8 December - Four out of five ethnic minority youth say Zwarte Piet can stay, although one out of three feel uncomfortable with the tradition, according to a new survey quoted by Allochtonenweblog.


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