In My Words
Meet our Dutch correspondent (yes, we have CATALINA fam all over the world) who shares a “controversial” holiday tradition, from Spain to the Netherlands … in her own words.
IIn the Netherlands, it’s not Santa who’s the star of December. It’s Sinterklaas. In mid-November, Sinterklaas arrives at the Dutch harbor, from Spain, to kick off a period of festivities, small gifts, and other related shenanigans for kids. It’s all a delightful major build-up to his birthday on December 5: Pakjesavond, as we call it – this literary translates to “Present Night” and is best compared to Christmas morning.
During that build-up, you get to meet Sinterklaas maybe once or twice, if you’re lucky. At the very least, you’ll get to collect some candy from one of his helpers. That means you’ll definitely run into: a Piet.
Because, instead of an army of elves, Sinterklaas has traditionally had a huge squad of “Zwarte Pieten,” technically “Black Petes,” who help him out. They keep tabs on who have been naughty or nice, and they make sure all of the presents get delivered.
During my lifetime, “Zwarte Piet” developed from being a “black Moor boy” into a more valuable assistant in charge of their boat trip from Spain to the Netherlands.
Most kids grew/grow up intensely loving this folklore tradition, complete with specific treats, songs, and television shows. As did I. I still get nostalgic when I eat pepernoten or catch a glimpse of the Sinterklaas News. But something major about this tradition is changing that was way overdue: Piet’s appearance and backstory. Yes, something positive happened in 2020. It brought us something different. Something good, I think.
Sure, in the late 1990s, we briefly had “rainbow-colored” Black Petes, to make him “colored” in a friendly way – blue, purple, green. Rainbow colors. Anything but black. But it didn’t stick. Then an international outcry, first from the far away Black Lives Movement in the United States, then to the Netherlands, a change was finally made to Zwarte Piet. There is no more blackface, or stories of our Santa having a Spanish black slave boy (as was first told over 150 years ago). Today, Pete has the “logical” soot smudges on his face, which he got from the chimney while climbing down to deliver presents to the kids. And we just call him “Piet” now. No more “Zwarte,” meaning “black” in Dutch.
My beloved tradition has changed. What matters, to me, is that, we still have Piet, but the dirt from the chimney is what made, and now makes, him appear darker while assisting Sinterklaas. This is actually the original story my parents taught me when I was little.
I’m not a kid anymore, but I know it’s possible to keep this Dutch tradition alive, for all kids. I know that some traditions must change though. Sometimes, we, as people, must change too. ■