What is Sinterklaas?

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Something typically Dutch is Sinterklaas and it is also a celebration which is ill-informed abroad. It is that time of the year again, time for Sinterklaas, and every year you get the discussion whether this celebration is racist or not. In this blog post I will explain what Sinterklaas is, his connection with Santa Claus, the origin of Sinterklaas and whether he is racist or not.

Sinterklaas is a children´s festival, celebrated in The Netherlands, Belgium, Aruba, Bonaire, Surinam and the Dutch Antilles (for so far I know). In The Netherlands we celebrate Sinterklaas on the 5th of December. Sinterklaas comes from Spain, with his helpers called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) in November, to The Netherlands on his steamboat which we call the Pakjesboot 13 (Gift Boat 13). This year Sinterklaas arrives in Maassluis with his boat and this boat transports the presents for the well behaved children. From the mainland on Sinterklaas gets transported on his white horse named Amerigo.

Until December 5th the children put their shoe in the house near the chimney and if they are lucky they will get a present in their shoe from Sinterklaas . This all happens when the children are sleeping in the nighttime and Sinterklaas only stays on the roof with Amerigo. It is Zwarte Piet who goes down the chimney and he is the one who puts the gift in the right shoe. On the 5th of December the kids get to thank Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet and the children get to have more presents. Sinterklaas returns to Spain the day after.

Sinterklaas is not a Dutch Santa Claus. Santa Claus doesn’t even come close to Sinterklaas. There are different stories of the origin of Santa Claus, but the most logical story is the one that Santa Claus is based on the image of Sinterklaas by Coca Cola for purposes of marketing. As you can hear, the name Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicolaas. Santa Claus is the American SInterklaas, never forget!

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The origin of Sinterklaas lies in Turkey. There he was a bishop around300 A.D. There are many legends of the origin of this festivity. There is the legend of the three children who were murdured and Sinterklaas brought them back to life, the legend of the three poor daughters who could marry because of the gifts from Sinterklaas which they used as a dowry, or the legend of the child that was saved from burning. In many ways, Sinterklaas has been celebrated for ages. Sinterklaas as we now know in modern times has been largely the work of Jan Schenkman, a teacher who wrote about Sinterklaas in the 1850’s.

Then you also have Zwarte Piet. His character was introduced in the 1850’s and there are two mostly used explanations for  his colour. The first story is that Saint Nicolaas the bishop bought an Ethiopian child slave and set him free. The second story is that the ´Pieten´ are black because of soot for going douwn the chimneys to give the children their presents. The second version is increasingly being told because of the discussion on racism.

Is Sinterklaas racist? There are people who find Sinterklaas a racist celebration, because they find that Zwarte Piet is portrayed as dumb negro helper of a white boss, representing slavery or the black people regarded as an inferior race. Since the 1960’s this discussion has been taking place but never hit ground until 2013 when the United Nations got involved by establishing a Task Force to study the celebration.

Where the discussion is coming from astonishes most Dutch people. For them, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were a part of their care-free childhood which they would want their children to experience in the way they did. Making the celebration fun and lively, Zwarte Piet is essential to the story. And childrend don’t see Zwarte Piet as negative, especially not as connecting them to slavery or seeing dark skinned people as inferior. Before the discussion started, adults didn’t even make the connection. Even in Belgium they don’t have the discussion like we do here and we would almost forget that Surinam and the Dutch Antilles don’t paint the faces of the Zwarte Piet black, but they paint the face of Sinterklaas white. The Sinterklaas celebration is not racist.

So…don’t we have better things to discuss about? Like the current global warming trend that imperils the survival of the polar bear or like the radical Muslim threat in The Netherlands…I’m just saying.

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