Black Christmas; zwarte piet

This is how Santa's little helpers dress in Holland. Anna Fox photographs a source of much liberal embarrassment

Dutch children get two bites at the annual present orgy of Christmas. On 25 December, they open their parcels with the rest of Europe, but on 6 December they receive a special advance consignment thanks to Sinta Klaus - or Saint Nicholas. The build-up begins a fortnight earlier, when the impersonators of this fourth-century bishop arrive with great civic ceremony in Dutch harbours by boat, laden with goodies. By tradition a tall, white-bearded figure in red robes, Sinta Klaus is accompanied by his helpers, known as Zwarte Piets (Black Petes). Played by women and children, the Zwarte Piets have gold earrings, white ruffs and colourful velvet tunics and breeches, but it is not their fashion sense that today causes sidelong glances. Their white faces are blacked up.

The origins of the decidedly politically incorrect Zwarte Piet are disputed. Some say his face is black because he used to climb down chimneys to deliver presents. Others have traced a link back to the black Moorish slaves who served the Spanish when they were colonial masters of the Netherlands.

Zwarte Piet's manner has certainly moderated in recent years - he no longer growls, and is more clown than curmudgeon. Some towns have even tried making him red, green or white. But the Dutch, in every other respect standard bearers of liberal values, prefer to stick - albeit somewhat uneasily - with Zwarte Piet the way he has always been, rather as the British persist, shamefacedly, in buying jam with a gollywog on the jar.

Face up to it "I was looking for a particular expression in the eyes of my Zwarte Piets," says photographer Anna Fox. "It is a confrontational look, confronting all of us with a question that is relevant to Europe, namely, what do we think about racism? Racism isn't unique to the Dutch. I'm not trying to say that. It is part of all our histories and we can't simply sweep away the past by getting rid of local and often potentially embarrassing reminders like Zwarte Piet. They still have a role and that, I think, is to make us look and think and talk about them, and, through them, about racism. They mean that we can't pretend that it doesn't exist." n

`Zwarte Piet' by Anna Fox with text by Mieke Bal is published by Black Dog, pounds 16.95

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