Sinterklaas-Fun Holiday or Huge Controversy?

While the Christmas season is fast approaching, the Dutch are already busy celebrating Sinterklaas.  Sinterklaas is similar to Santa (in fact we told our kids that he is his cousin) but he definitely has his own methods and traditions.

In a nutshell, Sinterklaas, who is very tall, skinny, old and stoic, lives in Spain (used to be Turkey) and each year he travels to The Netherlands by steamboat along with his helper, Zwarte Piet, and his horse.  We happened to stumble upon a celebration of the arrival of Sinterklaas a week ago as you can see in these pictures.

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Once Sinterklaas arrives, he travels around the country on his horse.  Children leave their shoes by the fireplace (or radiator should you find yourself without a fireplace) and put treats such as carrots and hay in the shoe for Sinterklaas’s horse.  Then the Zwarte Piet comes down the fireplace, collects the treats and leaves a treat for the child such as a small toy or candy.  Two popular food items for children to find in their shoe are kruidnoten, a small spice cookie, and solid chocolate letters, generally the child’s initial.  Children also sing Sinterklaas songs up the fireplace to encourage the visit.  Then on December 5th or 6th, the family gathers for a meal and while they are eating there is a knock at the door.  When the children go to the door, they find a sack of gifts from Sinterklaas.

Now, this sounds like a fun tradition for children and adults alike, but poor old Sinterklaas is not without his controversy.  The trouble is Zwarte Piet is portrayed by white people in blackface, often with exaggerated African features.  Apparently, this goes back to a story that was written in the 1800s in which Sinterklaas arrived with his “helpter” who seemed very much to be a representation of a slave in the Dutch colonies at the time.  Currently, this practice is very emotionally charged here in The Netherlands.  Some Dutch folk say it’s tradition and it’s not meant to be racist, it’s just in good fun for the holiday.  Others say it is racist and that the Piet should either simply be smudged with black smears because they are covered in soot from the fireplace or they should remove the Piet from the holiday altogether.  It is impossible not to stumble upon (often heated) debate on this topic.

In our house, we are trying the Sinterklaas tradition this year, but with a few modifications.  We have talked about the Piet and what that means and we have decided anyone can be a helper-any color, any gender, any size, shape, etc.  Also, we are not putting our shoe out every night for 3 weeks-nobody needs that much junk!  Instead, we put them out 2 times each week.  So far, Sinterklaas has been a fun addition to the holidays and we’ve enjoyed the cultural lesson.  And parents, let me just say that there is as much excitement and anticipation about getting something small or candy on several nights as there is with a big item just one night a year- just in case you were wondering!

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