Years ago, I used to date a South African girl whose mom was from the Netherlands.
She and I went over to Eindhoven in the south of the country one Christmas to hang out with her family and experience some Dutch culture.
The first thing her chain-smoking grandparents taught me was not to dare call the place they lived “Holland”, because that only applies to the western strip of their little country along the coastline. They informed me that if I was going to go around Eindhoven saying I was enjoying being in “Holland”, I’d only annoy everyone.
What they didn’t warn me about though was what was in store at their home around Christmas-time. It may have been December 5, which for some reason is when the Dutch celebrate what we generally would call Christmas. They call it St. Nicholas’ Eve. It could also have been Christmas Eve, but there we were, gathered around the tree awaiting our gifts and sipping glühwein. In walked “Sinterklaas”, who I had no trouble recognising (despite the giant pope hat and robes) as the jolly old Father Christmas character I had been utterly convinced until the age of five was indeed a real person who inhabits the North Pole.
This time, though, I was 25, and not so easily fooled. I saw right through the beard disguise to note that this was one of my girlfriend’s portly uncles.
He wobbled about asking the little kids in the room who had been good and who would be getting presents.
“Wie is goed geweest?! Die slecht is geweest?! Hoho!”
So far, so familiar.
Then a man covered in black face paint and wearing a minstrel outfit straight out of the 19th century burst into the room and started making terrifying noises.
The children shrieked and scattered as this living, breathing caricature from a Tintin comic shouted: “Waar zijn de stoute kinderen? (Where are the naughty children?)”
“Zwarte Piet! Zwarte Piet!” they screamed, clutching their presents.
I looked over at my girlfriend, who looked a bit embarrassed. She seemed to know what was going on, though, and was kind enough to explain it to me.
What I was witnessing was a supposedly ancient Dutch and Belgian tradition, and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is Santa’s helper, who carries presents around and punishes bad children by taking away their presents, mock hitting them or even kidnapping them in a knapsack and taking them back to his Moorish home country, Spain.
“But this dude is dressed as a golliwog,” I told her. “Is this a joke?”
She told me to keep quiet and eat another croquette.
Any white person even contemplating dressing up in the same way in South Africa would probably find himself having to explain his outfit to the Human Rights Commission. But this Zwarte Piet thing is still considered by the majority of Dutch to be one of their most important traditions, and doing anything to get rid of it gets a lot of them very hot under the collar.
Even the prime minister of the Netherlands found himself defending it while speaking at a nuclear security summit in 2014.
“Black Pete is black, and I cannot change that tradition.”
He explained that he also puts on the face paint every year and envies black people because it takes him days to get the sticky paint off afterwards.
It must be soooo much more convenient if your black face comes pre-applied before Christmas, right? Except it’s very hard to find any black Dutchman who’s happy about this.
Turns out the tradition isn’t even that old though, with its genesis in an 1850 book about St Nick and his helper. Even Santa, it seems, needed a slave.
The problem with all of this happy “traditioning” – self-evidently, one would think – is that there are black people who live in the Netherlands, not to mention in the rest of Europe and a few other places around the world. To program white children to associate black people with someone who scares the daylights out of them and might steal them or their presents is obviously indefensible. It has led to black children being bullied at school and called Zwarte Piet themselves.
Heaven only knows how these caricatures affect the perceptions of the Dutch towards black people over the rest of their lives.
So there’s a huge movement trying to ban the tradition completely. There’s a plan in urban areas to get rid of all the Black Petes and replace them with “Chimney Petes”, which does away with the blackface tradition and simply replaces it with dirty white guys covered in soot.
Do check out the wonderfully informative Vox video below if you feel you need any reminders about why South Africa may in fact not be the most racist place on earth.