Sinterklaas is coming to town - and some Dutch are upset

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While some see him as an enchanting symbol of Dutch culture, Sinterklaas - from whom Americans derived Santa Claus - is not welcomed by everyone. His black-faced assistant, known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, has in recent years come under fire for having racial undertones.

"I understand it's in their tradition to celebrate the event but I have to admit I am deeply offended," says Patrick Chapell, an African-American musician living here in Utrecht.

Zwarte Piet - whose multiple incarnations are portrayed by white Dutchmen sporting black greasepaint, red lipstick, and woolly Afro wigs - is supposedly darkened by his countless chimney trips delivering presents. But variations on the legend say the Moorish-looking helper came from a slave background.

Mr. Chapell is not alone in his dislike of the tradition, which dates back to the 12th century. Many - especially those people of color who make up 25 percent of the country's population - are also offended.

But where some see offense, others see fun. "It's our tradition and I am really proud of it," says Marjoline Wentzel, a Dutch-born museum worker who has received gifts from Sinterklaas. "I don't see any racism in it. It's just fun."

In many Dutch towns, thousands of people flood the busy streets hoping to catch a glimpse of Sinterklaas and his convoy as Piet poses for pictures with his fans....

Dutch historian Bert Theunissen says Sinterklaas has been celebrated long enough in the Netherlands to dispel any racial implications.

"I think I speak on behalf of many Dutch people when I say it's utter nonsense to associate it with racism," says Mr. Theunissen, a history professor at Utrecht University. "It's a tradition that goes back to way before the 19th century and it simply has no racial connotations whatsoever."

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Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 12/23/2005

The article says "some Dutch are upset." The only person the article cites who is upset is an American musician living in Utrecht. The article also says that "variations on the legend say the Moorish-looking helper came from a slave background." That sounds like a recent invention intended to introduce U.S. sensitivities here. It's certainly no well-known variation. St. Nicholas, a bishop, is consistently portrayed in mitre and with a crozier (unlike the derivative Santa Claus). He is accompanied by Moorish helpers who throw candy to good children but whose punishment of naughty children is to put them in a bag and take them back to Spain, where the bishop comes from. This is not a medieval tradition. It probably reflects sixteenth-century Dutch history. In 1559 the government of Philip II, King of Spain and ruler of the Low Countries, increased the number of Netherlandish dioceses. Each of these new bishops (who could be considered to have come from Spain's government, even though some bishops were themselves Dutch)was accompanied by two official anti-heresy inquisitors. None of these inquisitors was a Moor; but to the Dutch, until recently, most Spanish were considered rather dark. So the imagery has some power to scare naughty Calvinist children. The reality of the Inquisition has been largely forgotten. Perhaps it lives on in Zwarte Piet.