It's a common complaint around the world that the arrival of Christmas (or rather, the commercial hoopla that heralds it) gets earlier with each passing year. Here in the Netherlands though – where 25 December plays second fiddle to the child-centred Sinterklaas festivities three weeks beforehand – it’s the debate surrounding a chap called Zwarte Piet that seems to get earlier, and fiercer, every time. 

Who is 'Black Pete'?

Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet's polarising appearance continues to fuel fierce debate in the Netherlands 

To cut a very long story short, Zwarte Piet (literally, ‘Black Pete’) is the companion to Sinterklaas, the saint who arrives each November from Spain to deliver gifts to Dutch children. Piet’s jolly duties include entertaining the throngs of young fans and distributing edible treats, hence his ubiquity in shop windows and on the packaging for pepernoten and other seasonal goods. The reason Pete has become a hot-button topic of late is his polarising appearance. In cartoon depictions, he has in the past shared some of his exaggerated features – black skin, red clown lips, frizzy hair – with the golliwog and the minstrel, caricatures of black people that have long since fallen out of favour.

Dutch children and adults have typically shown their enthusiasm for Piet by donning frizzy wigs, applying red paint to their lips and blackening their faces. Outsiders, and a growing portion of the Dutch population, equate the custom with ‘blackface’ and racism. Others, who have grown up with the practice, are fiercely defensive of every curl on Piet’s head, and they dismiss as politically correct killjoys those who beg to differ.

The debate so far 

The event that triggered the annual taking of sides occurred in 2014, when a UN committee called upon the Dutch government to take steps to amend the tradition of Zwarte Piet, which, it noted ‘is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced… as a vestige of slavery.’ The comments came in response to a compulsory report that The Netherlands had filed as part of its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Summing up the view of the committee, the Colombian delegate Murillo Martinez insisted that ‘violations of human rights cannot be justified by invoking cultural traditions.’ In other words, Piet needed a makeover, and fast.

UN intervention of any kind is rarely an uncontroversial affair, and opinion was immediately split across all levels of Dutch society regarding the committee’s pronouncement (which, it has to be said, was just one aspect of a document that covered several aspects of Dutch life and law). Prime Minister and VVD leader Mark Rutte, who has a record of defending Zwarte Piet in his ‘traditional’ form, immediately said that the appearance of a Dutch folk character should be of no concern to UN mandarins – a view shared by 83 per cent of the Dutch population, according to a survey by the current affairs programme Eén Vandaag. Deputy Lodewijk Asscher (who belongs to the Labour party) took a different tack, writing on Facebook that ‘our Dutch identity does not depend on the colour of the makeup on the face of Piet, rather our willingness to defend the deeper values of our society.’ Asscher referred approvingly to the school attended by his own children, where patriotic orange makeup had apparently replaced the divisive black pan stick of yesteryear.

Zwarte Piet protestors Koen van Weel

Pro-Pete protestors rally in defence of the character's traditional depiction (photo: Koen van Weel)

Ivar Noordenbos, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment led by Mr Asscher, points out that although the views expressed by the deputy PM on social media were personal, the department has for some time now been working behind the scenes to break the Zwarte Piet deadlock. ‘More than a year before the UN committee report was published, we were facilitating round table discussions at the Ministry,’ said Noordenbos. ‘These are attended by all sorts of interested parties, from those who sincerely believe that Zwarte Piet should remain unchanged, to the Dutch retailers who are unsure how to proceed and want guidance. The simple idea for the meetings is that it’s always good to have an open dialogue.’

Moving forward 

Ironically, those in attendance were asked not to disclose the specifics of what was discussed, but delegates do seem to have walked away from the most recent session, in late September, with renewed conviction on how to steer Piet towards acceptability. Pam Evenhuis, spokesman for the organisation Sint in Amsterdam that co-ordinates Sinterklaas’s annual arrival in the capital said that this year’s Amsterdam parade of 1,200 volunteers will be equally split between ‘traditional’ Piets and so-called roetpieten: ‘sooty Piets’ whose skin is partly blackened – regardless of ethnicity – from having coming down the chimney. Last year, there were two traditional Piets for ever roetpiet, so it’s clear – in Amsterdam, at least – which way the wind is blowing.  

Things are a little less clear on the Dutch high street at large. Last year, supermarket behemoth Albert Heijn removed depictions of Piet from its advertising hoardings and store decorations. This year, the Jumbo chain has packaged its pepernoten with cartoon depictions of barefaced white and black children wearing Piet’s Renaissance attire. The prize for PR ingenuity goes to the department store De Bijenkorf, however, whose spokesperson insists that the decision to ‘upgrade’ its iconic climbing Piets to new, gold-skinned versions has nothing to do with the public debate and everything to do with its new ‘luxury premium experience strategy.’

Article first published in A-Mag in 2014