Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town - and Some Dutch Are Upset ; the Centuries-Old Tradition, from Which Santa Claus Was Derived, Has Come under Fire for Having Racial Undertones

By Bruce Mutsvairo Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town - and Some Dutch Are Upset ; the Centuries-Old Tradition, from Which Santa Claus Was Derived, Has Come under Fire for Having Racial Undertones


Bruce Mutsvairo Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


- For Dutch children, the eagerly anticipated jolly man in a red suit comes not Christmas Eve, but on Dec. 5 when "Sinterklaas" arrives by boat from Spain.

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.

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Christmas celebrations are marked separately. …

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