Sinterklaas’ dark-skinned helper: racist stereotype or enduring tradition?

Joel van der Veen
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Was it an innocent holiday tradition, or an insulting stereotype best forgotten?

That was the question posed by media reports last week on the topic of Sinterklaas Day, the Dutch holiday held annually on Dec. 5.

Sinterklaas is essentially our version of Santa Claus, an old man in red who comes each year, leaving oranges, candies and other goodies in the wooden shoes of well-behaved children.

The point of contention is his assistant, Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete.” Actors portraying Zwarte Piet are usually seen in blackface, complete with a dark, curly wig and red lips. This custom strikes many as offensive and stereotypical, including Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society.

“It’s about an obtuse and obscene portrayal of Africans,” she was quoted in Friday’s Toronto Star. “It turns them into caricatures ... and it needs to end.”

I have one question in particular for those offended: What took you so long?

It’s not as if blackface portrayals became unacceptable overnight. Minstrel shows went out with vaudeville and freak shows, and I wouldn’t predict an Al Jolson revival any time soon.

Meanwhile, Sinterklaas festivities have continued for decades. In my hometown of Peterborough, Ont., the Dutch-Canadian Cultural Association organized the annual Sinterklaas Day parties at a local theatre.

We watched a play, and then the old man himself arrived, accompanied by his dark friend, who tossed peper noten — similar to bland ginger snaps — throughout the auditorium, sending my brother diving under the seats to gather as many as he could.

Sinterklaas Day is traditionally held separately from Christmas to preserve the religious spirit of the latter holiday, but in our household, we still had to wait for our gifts.

We knew some kids who opened presents on Dec. 5, but only a few — mostly families who didn’t have cable or forbade their children from reading Archie comics.

Sinterklaas was always played by one of the older fellows from church, while teenage boys were enlisted to play Zwarte Piet, their faces smeared in makeup.

I don’t recall anyone wearing full-out blackface — no red lips, obviously — but more to the point, we understood that Zwarte Piet was dark because he did the grunt work, sliding down chimneys and coating himself in soot in the process.

Sinterklaas would invite the good kids on stage to reward them for their good behaviour. One year, my brother was called up for the opposite reason.

He and I had come up with our own juvenile versions of the song we sang to welcome Sinterklaas. I guess a friend of his overheard him at school, singing it with our lyrics, and he told his mother, who was one of the event organizers.

“I hear you have been singing silly songs about me,” Sinterklaas told my brother. He let him off with a warning, but I can’t blame my brother for being scared — not after seeing the long wooden staff the old man carried.

Until the comparison was made, I never made any association between Zwarte Piet and blackface, and I find nothing offensive about how he was depicted at our parties.

Context is everything here, and if Zwarte Piet is just a guy covered in soot, as we were told, then I can’t say the character offends me.

That said, I certainly understand why the character bothers other people. It is rooted in slavery and colonialism, things that should not be celebrated or treated lightly.

Tradition is one thing, but Sinterklaas Day is for all to share — for every boy and girl who ever dreamed of waking up to find oranges in their klompen.

Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.

Organizations: Ontario Black History Society, Dutch-Canadian Cultural Association

Geographic location: Peterborough

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