Tensions mount in the Netherlands as UN questions ‘Black Pete’ Christmas tradition

Dutch defend Christmas customs condemned as racist

It emerged last week that a UN working group is investigating the Dutch custom of white people dressing up as ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) as part of their traditional Christmas festivities. The leader of the UN group, the Jamaican academic Verene Shepherd, has spoken out against the practice on Dutch national television, condemning it as ‘a throw-back to slavery’.

The figure of ‘Zwarte Piet’ is an integral part of the Dutch Christmas tradition. In the Netherlands, children receive gifts on the fifth of December from ‘Sinterklaas’, a version of Saint Nicholas, along with his black slave helpers. These were originally portrayed as scary figures that would beat naughty children with a bunch of twigs and take them away in a sack to Saint Nicholas’ fictional home in Spain. Today they are mainly characterised as the clown, acrobat, joker and entertainer. Although the custom is clearly linked to slavery and colonial times, most children are currently told that Black Pete gets his colour from the soot in the chimneys when he delivers their presents. 

A few weeks before the culmination of festivities on the fifth, Sinterklaas and his ‘helpers’ arrive by boat and are greeted by the local children in large-scale events that are staged across the country. The largest event takes place in Amsterdam and is broadcast on national television. Both professional ‘Pieten’ and many volunteers paint their faces black, their lips red and don curly black wigs and gold earrings. It is also customary for the children watching the event to do the same. They greet the procession of Sinterklaas and the Pieten by singing traditional songs, lyrics of which include: ‘Even though I’m black as soot, I mean well’. 
My friend's rendition of Black Pete, made in primary school My friend's rendition of Black Pete, made in primary school

This tradition has sparked many debates in recent years, but it has come to a head in the last week as it came to light that a UN working group is researching the matter. Alerted to the issues by campaigners who felt they were being ignored by Dutch authorities, the UN group sent a letter to the Dutch government last January, expressing concern that ‘The character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism.’

They also informed the Netherlands that the proposal to include the Sinterklaas tradition in the UNESCO list of Immaterial Cultural Heritage cannot be pursued if it is found to infringe on human rights. 

The Netherlands responded in writing in July. They deny requesting inclusion on the UNESCO list and state that they are aware ‘that ‘Black Pete’ is considered by some to be offensive’. They emphasise the country’s commitment to combating racism and discrimination, and argue that the Sinterklaas festival is a children’s festival, without going into further detail. 

The white actor Erik van Muiswinkel, who has played the head Pete in the televised event since 1998, spoke out earlier this year saying Pete could be ‘less black and less of a servant’. However, although there has been a demonstration in Amsterdam against the current customs, the overwhelming majority in the Netherlands seems to be in favour of upholding tradition, and maintains that Black Pete is not a racist phenomenon.

On Saturday hundreds of people demonstrated in The Hague and Nijmegen to ‘keep Black Pete black’. In Nijmegen an attempt was made to break the record number of Zwarte Pieten pictured in one photograph.

There is also a Facebook petition, or ‘Pietitie’, which gained a million likes in one day and now boasts 2.1 million supporters. This means that around one in three Dutch Facebook users would like to keep the Petes’ image intact. In contrast, the page for those in favour of changing the look of the Petes, entitled ‘Zwarte Piet is disciminatie’, has 11,980 likes.

Out of 200 councils questioned by the Dutch broadcaster NOS, none is planning to change the staging of Sinterklaas’ arrival in their town. Two of those 200 stated that they may consider implementing changes during next year’s festivities.

The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte responded to the current unrest surrounding the topic by saying: ‘Black Pete, that already says it, he’s black. We can’t change much about that.’  In an interview with the Dutch television programme Een Vandaag last week, Shepherd called this ‘a curious response’. She also commented that 'The working group cannot understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throw-back to slavery, and that in the 21st century, this practice should stop.'

Shepherd has been criticised for voicing her personal opinion, in her words, ‘as a black person’, before a full investigation has taken place. Marc Jacobs, member of the UNESCO commission in Flanders, an area which shares the Sinterklaas tradition, has pointed out that the UN working group led by Shepherd consists of volunteers operating on their own initiative. This practice is a common one within UN procedure, and in their blog the UN has called for respect for these unpaid experts. Jacobs accuses the working group of abusing the UNESCO convention 'to get their own agenda in the media'.

The results of the research conducted by Shepherd's group are due to be handed over to the Human Rights Council next September.  In the meantime, people in the Netherlands prepare to celebrate Sinterklaas as usual this year.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Senior Application Support -Fidessa, Charles River, Oracle, FIX

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Application Support - Fide...

Product Specialist - (Application Support, UNIX, SQL)

£45000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Product Specialist - (Application...

Technical Specialist - (Application Support, UNIX, SQL)

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Specialist - (Applicati...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home