A third option is to observe the feast day (anniversary of the death) of Saint Nicholas on 5 (or 6) December, and within the Netherlands that takes the tradition of a Sinterklaas, robed in the vestments of a bishop (as the original Nicholas held that post in Myra in present-day Turkey, a Christian bishopric until the Seljuk Turks rolled over it in the early 15th century), visits the children to deliver gifts in the form of traditional candy and sweets placed in their shoes, in exchange for the thoughtful remembrance of the children leaving apples and carrots for Sinterklaas' horse. The parallel to the later American Santa Claus is obvious, as we derive much of our tradition from the story.
The Dutch have differences too, and one has come under fire from the Gauleiters of Political Rectitude, now from the United Nations.
Most of the St Nicholas figures in Europe have assistants of some sort, and in the case of Sinterklaas, that assistant takes the form of Zwarte Piet ('Black Pete'), though in recent decades he is in many cases no longer simply a single assistant but a group – Zwarte Pieten. The reason for the name should be obvious:
The idea many years ago was that, like other such holiday duos in Europe, the two would serve as a sort of Manichaean lesson for the children – St Nicholas bestowing candy and gifts on the good children, and the assistant reporting on and delivering the benign (or not so) consequences to the bad. In time, Piet has assumed more the attitude of a mischievous elf and helper.
For the Dutch, the story has developed that Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piet(en) arrive by ship from Spain. Piet has already reconnoitered all the homes by listening in to determine if the kinderen have been bad or good, reported in the book that Sinterklaas carries as he makes his rounds astride his horse that flies from rooftop to rooftop, with his Pieten delivering the gifts through chimneys or through the back door, for Sinterklaas has the master of master keys.
Whereas the American Santa Claus leaves his elves behind at the North Pole, Sinterklaas brings his Pieten to join in the festivities and street celebrations, and jolly little elves they are, with their blackface, red lipstick, sedate afro wigs, snappy velvet feathered berets atop some semblance of a Moorish costume. For a Moor he was, back in the days when he first appeared, and that made all the sense in the world during those times when the fight between Christianity and Islam was believed to be literally a struggle between good and evil, a fight for the salvation of souls.
I was introduced to the tradition many years ago while doing a training stint with the British Royal Marines, who maintain a close working relationship with their Dutch counterparts. Early December in the field found the two cultures in an amicable juxtaposition of festivities – the UK Marines (by way of the attached 29 Commando Royal Artillery) had the excuse of celebrating the feast of St Barbara, the patron saint of artillery and explosives, followed closely by the Dutch Commandos returning the favor with Sinterklaas, all somewhat ad hoc and therefore that much more fun. I have a vague recollection of someone dressing up as the bearded saint, but what really sticks in my mind is the large Dutch Kaporal, normally rather gruff yet nonetheless witty, doing an absolutely hilarious and side-splitting turn as a Zwarte Piet on steroids. It took a lot of Courage (the English beer, not the attitude) and Heineken to really appreciate what a grand time we had.
And did I say blackface? Ah, there you are – blatant racism that is, at least according to the varieties of Professional Indignants who are famous for their shakedowns and power thrusts. Not only are the Pieten in blackface, but they're servants – how demeaning.
I understand the "servant" part, but isn't it good to be black? This shit is always so confusing. And is there anything that Black Pete does or symbolizes that is more derogatory toward black people than the very existence of, say, Flavor Flav or Lil Wayne? …
This isn't about sensitivity, it's about power – specifically, the power to dictate to others what their history and traditions actually mean, whether they want to hear it or not….
The UN [Human Rights Commission] suggested that black Dutch citizens' human rights were being violated…. No mention was made as to whether the Dutch majority had any right to promote and maintain their own identity….
Thankfully, mercifully, and quite refreshingly, the Dutch populace has told the world to go fuck itself. A "Pete-ition" in support of Black Pete on Facebook gathered over two million likes in the matter of a few days. And according to a poll of nearly 10,000 Netherlanders, 96% said the debate shouldn't even be occurring. It's almost as if the entire Dutch nation has applied blackface to its posterior and is mooning the world.
Amid all the guilt-tripping about atoning for colonialism, it bears noting that most accounts suggest that the Black Pete character is based on Spanish Moors – you know, the Africans who invaded and occupied Spain for over five hundred years.
They should know something about colonialism. They were doing it long before the Dutch were.
The letter from the UNHCR that set off the current row came from Verene Shepherd, a Jamaican professor of Social History, but after the dust-up, a UN spokesman quickly repudiated the letter. In addition, the Belgian representative to UNESCO (Belgium shares the tradition to a great extent) further tried to clarify the embarrassment:
[Shepherd] is just a consultant who abused the name of the UN to get her own agenda into the media... [it is] nothing more than a bad move in a game by pressure groups in the Netherlands.
The four signatories of that letter do not belong to a competent organ of UNESCO, but just used paper with a United Nations letterhead, actually from the High Commissioner of Human Rights.It's not surprising that the UN contributed to this opera buffa.
Another historical note is that the Netherlands arose from the horrific eighty-year struggle to gain independence from the Spanish Habsburgs, with the atrocities of the Gran Duque de Alba and the Spanish Inquisition, a war later subsumed into the cataclysmic Thirty Years War. The fact that the Dutch entertain any notion at all of a grand guest and patron from Spain is ample evidence of their let-bygones-be-bygones openness to a reasonable diversity. But then, reasonableness or even accuracy and truth are rarely ingredients in the grievance industry.