Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sinterklaas Is Here!

This weekend the Dutch version of Santa Clause came to town. Sinterklaas arrived in the Amsterdam harbor on a boat from Spain this Sunday morning. I don't feel completely qualified to give the history of Sinterklaas, but I'll try to give an idea of the tradition to the best of my knowledge. Basically Sinterklaas comes from Saint Nicholas, and he is the patron saint of children. Similar to Santa Clause, he is said to keep a list of all children and whether or not they have been good or bad over the year. On December 5th Dutch children get gifts from Sinterklaas, in their shoes (?) I think. If a child has been bad over the year, it is said that he will be sent back to Spain! This threat has a lot of historical significance because the Dutch were under Spanish control for many years in the middle ages. So, that is what my knowledge of Sinterklaas is. One main difference that needs to be talked about between Sinterklaas and Santa Clause, is that of their helpers. As all Americans know, Santa Clause is assisted by hundreds and thousands of elves that work for him in the North Pole. Well, Sinterklaas also has helpers, but his helpers are called Zwarte Piets (black petes). Basically Zwarte Piet is usually portrayed by white Dutch people dressed up in complete black face. This would never fly in America, and I think these pictures will illustrate just why that is.

On Sunday some of my friends and I decided to get a taste of Dutch tradition and so we made our way to Dam Square in order to get a look at Sinterklaas and all the Zwarte Piets running around as he made his way through the city (on a white horse of course). I had hear about Zwarte Piet before going to the parade, but I was in no way prepared to encounter the site that awaited me. There were literally hundreds of people dressed up in what looked like clown outfits, with all of their skin entirely blacked out and with wigs as well! They were all running around interacting with the crowds and acting like fools. Some of them were even scaling a building near the square. A spectacle like this would never fly in America and my friends and I were all made slightly uncomfortable by the sight of it. The arguments that I have heard to justify the continued acceptance of this practice really do not satisfy me. I have been told that "it's just a tradition" and it has also been argued that blackface does not have the same negative connotations in this country that it does in America, but I really don't think that makes it okay. It has also been argued that the Dutch do not have the same history of racism that we have in the States, but this is simply a falsehood. The Dutch played a major role in the slave trade, they held colonies around the globe, and they can also proudly claim to be the ancestors of Afrikaans people in South Africa. When the Dutch arrived on the southern point of Africa, they handled themselves in an entirely racist manner and so I think it is simply ignorant to try and argue that the Dutch do not have a racist history. Apparently there have been attempts to try and get this tradition changed, for instance one group has argued for a new tradition in which the Zwarte Piets are painted in all different colors of the rainbow in order to show diversity, but none of these efforts have been succesful at gaining support within the country, so 600 Zwarte Piets were still found running around the streets of Amsterdam this past Sunday. I'll try not to dwell on that though. It was really cool to get to see Sinterklaas, along with some colonists! (and someone is trying to argue the Dutch aren't historically racist). He rode past us on his big white horse and all the little kids got really excited. It is also a Dutch tradition for the Zwarte Piets to hand out peipernoeten (I think I'm spelling that wrong) and so all the little kids (some of whom were dressed up as Zwarte Piet themselves) were standing along the parade route with bags out waiting to recieve their peipernoeten (which is just little ginger snap cookies, they're pretty tasty).

On another note, I went to the Anne Frank House on Tuesday. I was trying to wait out and go with my mom, but they were supposed to cut down the chestnut tree from the garden that Anne wrote about so much in her diary. My friends and I decided on a whim to go check it out before the cut the tree down the next day. It was a good place to visit, it was just sort of amazing to be in all the same places that she describes so well within the diary. So... to those who are coming to visit me, I recommend that you go, but since I don't want to pay another 7,50 euro to go again, I think I will find a cafe nearby and read a book while you explore it. Well, that's all for now, Shari is coming in two days and I'm super excited!


mzanni said...

ruth I love your posts!

iijjccoo said...
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Mom said...

I think it wouls make sense for the Dutch to think more about the inherent racism in this tradition!