Martine Rolls: How Saint Nicholas divided a nation

By Martine Rolls

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Saint Nicholas arrives at the 2008 Sinterklaas Festival in Tauranga.
Saint Nicholas arrives at the 2008 Sinterklaas Festival in Tauranga.

For months, the people back home in Holland have been discussing it, Facebook threads have been full of it, and I have been pondering about writing a column about it for weeks.

I decided against writing about it at first, because I figured most readers wouldn't know what I was talking about and the rest wouldn't care.

But now I feel I have to, as on Monday night, the story made it on TV3's 6pm news.

What is this fuss all about? It's about an old tradition we call Sinterklaas, best translated into Saint Nicholas .

It's a great big party for the children on the evening of December 5, the Dutch way of celebrating Christmas; Coca Cola even based the jolly bearded man we all know as Santa on it.

A few weeks before December 5, Sinterklaas officially arrives in Holland on board a steamship, dressed in full costume - a flowing red robe, a mitre, and carrying a crosier - and he rides on a beautiful white horse.

Sinterklaas used to arrive in Tauranga too but, to my children's disappointment, we haven't seen him here for a few years now.

The problem is that old Sinterklaas has a bunch of assistants. These helpers are not elves, they are black men.

The name given to these helpers is Zwarte Piet, which means black Pete.

On the evenings before December 5, the children sing traditional songs and, with much anticipation, they put a shoe by the chimney - or the central heating - before going to bed.

Saint Nicholas and Black Pete ride their horses through the streets and over the rooftops at night, delivering presents to children who have been good.

The day has been celebrated more or less this way since the 13th century but, in our current multicultural society, it is suddenly offensive.

It has come to a point that the United Nations have expressed concerns that the Dutch Christmas tradition is racist and "infringes the human rights" of black people.

When I was growing up, I always thought Zwarte Piet was the coolest of the cool. He was funny, mischievous and acrobatic.

With a huge big smile on his face, he handed out lollies. What more do you want when you're 5? I am appalled that the UN's High Commission for Human Rights has written to the Dutch Government expressing concerns over the tradition and accusing the authorities of failing to react to complaints of racial discrimination.

"Some practices, which are part of cultural heritage, may infringe upon human rights," the letter said.

"Negative media and other cultural, social or traditional portrayals of persons belonging to minorities may constitute racism and may be degrading to members of those communities, in the present case persons belonging to black populations and people of African descent, and can perpetuate negative stereotypes within society."

As usual mid-November, Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam and a bunch of protesters joined the families.

They protested because they think black Petes are blatant racist caricatures and should be banned.

As far as I know, Sinterklaas is celebrated in Holland's former colonies Suriname and the ABC Islands in the Carribean.

The majority of people who live in these countries have brown skin, and they also use black face paint and red lipstick to get into character.

The children are just as excited. I have never heard a child say anything bad about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.

It's the one celebration they look forward to all year. The debate has gone on for years, but it's now stirring - and dividing - the Netherlands more than ever before.

There have been mass protests, even death threats around the matter. So is it time for a change, or is this just a clear sign that political correctness has gone too far?

The suggested compromise, in good Dutch fashion, is to adopt a rainbow Pete but that idea hasn't been taken on just yet.

Zwarte Piet is as black as he ever was this year.

If red, blue, green and purple-faced helpers for Sinterklaas would calm people down and make things a little easier on everyone, why not?

I don't think the children would care much either way, and let's not forget that it's their party after all.

Martine Rolls is a Tauranga writer and digital strategist - www.sweetorange.co.nz

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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