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Celebrating Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet: A Dutch Holiday Tradition
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Sinterklaas kapoentje

Gooi wat in mijn schoentje

Gooi wat in mijn laarsje

Dank u Sinterklaasje

Every single child in the Netherlands knows this song which brings along the happy festive December 5th on which we celebrate the birthday of Sinterklaas. After having travelled all the way from Spain on a big steam boat, he comes to deliver presents, pepernoten, and sweets to the good children. Accompanying him, is his beautiful white horse Amerigo with whom he rides the rooftops of the Dutch houses and of course, he never goes anywhere without his faithful Zwarte Piet by his side.

In order to know where the presents must be delivered, the Sint carries the “Big Book” along with him in which he notes the list of “good” children who will be rewarded. The naughty ones, on the other hand, will receive twigs to get beaten with.  

In order to know where the presents must be delivered, the Sint carries the “Big Book” along with him in which he notes the list of “good” children who will be rewarded. The naughty ones, on the other hand, will receive twigs to get beaten with. The really bad children even risk being kidnapped and sent back to Spain in a bag, which like all respectful fairy tales, is a good way of making sure that our little loved ones remain nice. In one way they must consider themselves lucky because at least they don’t get eaten up by the terrifying “Grýla” for example, like the little Icelandic children do!

Sinterklaas always travels with his beautiful white horse, Amerigo, and his faithful Zwarte Piet. #Dutch #Sinterklaas #ZwartePiet #Netherlands #StNicholas Click To Tweet

Anyway, back to our own local hero. Originally Sinterklaas (or Saint Nicholas) was a bishop born in 260 in Patara, which now lies in Turkey but at that time belonged to the Roman Empire. This explains the traditional clothes which he is always portrayed with along with religious references (a catholic cross on his hat, the big “staff” which he carries around)… All of these elements confer a certain degree of solemnity and seriousness to his character. Even in the songs about him, children still refer to him with the “u” form which is the polite version of the “you”. Even if he does bring gifts and sweets, he is still this very impressive and “serious” character. His help, “Zwarte Piet” is the one you can have fun with, but there is always a sense of respect and deference towards the Sint.  

Even if he does bring gifts and sweets, #Sinterklaas is still this very impressive and 'serious character. #ZwartePiet is the one you can have fun with. #Netherlands #StNicholas #Christmas Click To Tweet Some might say he is the Dutch and less jolly version of Santa Claus Click To Tweet


Some might say he is the Dutch and less jolly version of Santa Claus, however to me Sinterklaas was always extra special due to all the rituals, songs, and stories surrounding the celebration. He probably also holds a special place in my heart because we were the only Dutch family around us actually celebrating it in our small French village, which kind of made it our own private family tradition. On the evening of the 5th, my sister, my mum and dad would gather around the fireplace, line up our shoes filled with carrots and apples for Amerigo and sing songs to make sure that he heard us and would pass by our house during the night. The next morning we would wake up and find some presents accompanied by little poems / riddles playfully mocking a specific character trait or making us guess the content of the gift.

 

Sinterklaas Shoes

Photo Courtesy: Stephanie Aliwell


We were the only Dutch family around us actually celebrating it in our small French village, which kind of made it our own private family tradition.

Since I moved to the Netherlands, some 8 years ago now, I noticed how ever-present the Sint and his Zwarte Pieten are amongst children and adults alike. The celebrations actually start earlier since children are allowed to put their shoes out in the evening as from the 18th of November in the hope of getting little presents until the big ones arrive on “D-Day”. Personally I am not a big fan of this part since I can’t help but think that this is just another way of bullying parents into buying “more stuff” and therefore also making the actual 5th less special. I really try to limit those in-between gifts, also to teach my elder girl to not always expect finding a gift in her shoes 17 days in a row! I get exactly the same feeling when supermarkets start bringing out the Christmas decorations as early as the month of September, please let us enjoy one season at a time!

Why do supermarkets bring out #Christmas decorations in September? Please let us enjoy one season at a time. #HappyHolidays #BestTimeofYear Click To Tweet

Nevertheless, the magic of Sinterklaas still remains and his arrival in the country from Spain is always a main headline even in the most highbrow newspaper. The daily adventures of the Sint and his Pieten are followed by millions on TV in the “Sinterklaas journaal” during which children hold their breath waiting to find out if the Sint will be able to deliver the presents on time because of a Piet losing the Big Book or because his horse Amerigo getting lost on the journey.

What is interesting about this celebration is that it is not only for children anymore. Adults have also recreated their own version of the party and not one year has gone by without me celebrating one or several “Sinterklaas parties” during which small presents are exchanged and board games come out. Again, one of the most challenging part of the party is writing the best poem to match the gift which will be given to a friend, family member, or even a colleague. That is the time when every person gets the chance to release the inner poet hidden inside her or him. This is also a time when some dark secrets get revealed, the dirtier and cheekier, the better!


The whole folklore surrounding Sinterklaas is what makes it so magical to children. However, it has also been its pitfall in the last couple of years. You might have heard of the polemic surrounding the political correctness of the Zwarte Piet, or for some, the blatant racism that he portrays and symbolizes. I must admit that my first reaction when this debate came out was one of pure indignation and anger: how dare a non-Dutch citizen who does not know what Sinterklaas is about openly criticize and publicly condemn the representation of “Zwarte Piet”? In the innocent eyes of a child, there is no racism and no such considerations so why bring them up and create a problem where there seemingly never was one? That is what I, and many others who were brought up with these traditions, thought in any case.

There is a polemic surrounding the political correctness of the Zwarte Piet, or the blatant racism that he portrays and symbolizes. Click To Tweet My first reaction was how dare a non-Dutch citizen openly criticize and publicly condemn the representation of #ZwartePiet #Netherlands #Christmas Click To Tweet.

Photo Courtesy: Stephanie Aliwell


“Zwarte Piet” or “Black Peter” as he is called is Sinterklaas’ aid who helps him along the way by delivering the presents and sweets (or the twigs to the naughty kids). He is depicted as a small, black, young man dressed in colorful clothes. The stories about the origins of Zwarte Piet differ. Some say that he used to be a slave who was freed by the Sint, some others say that the reason why his skin is black is because of the charcoal stains which he gets when he goes down the chimneys whilst delivering presents. Either way, it is indeed difficult to ignore or deny the links made with slavery and racism. It got me thinking, what would it change if “Zwarte Piet” was not black but blue, pink or green? Would it take away the essence of the celebration and what it stands for? When seeing my elder one joyfully painting her face in blue, red and green to dress up like the new “Zwarte Piet” I realised that no, it does not matter what colour he is. What really matters is that Sinterklaas remains the same magical, fun and great celebration for all the future generations to come!

It does not matter if #ZwartePiet is blue, red, or green. The magical, fun, and great Sinterklaas celebration is what does. Click To Tweet

Disclaimer: All views expressed are of the author’s alone.


Stephanie AliwellStephanie Aliwell grew up in France in an English/Dutch family. She has currently been living in the Netherlands for the past 8 years and works in Amsterdam in the traveling industry. She is step mother to a 9-year-old-girl and a new mom to her 7-month-old baby. 


 

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