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.

News
i100
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Property

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: KENT MARKET TOWN - An exciting new role has ar...

Financial Accountants, Cardiff, £250 p/day

£180 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountants - Key Banking...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices