“Why is Zwarte Piet not white?”

Maxim: Celebrating Sinterklaas is just a nice Dutch tradition


This Saturday, Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten will arrive in Maastricht by boat. This holy bishop, who lives in Spain, is the greatest friend of all Dutch children. On his birthday, 5 December, his black servants climb the rooves of every house and throw presents through the chimneys. Is Sinterklaas just a nice Dutch tradition, or should we prevent children from getting the wrong impression: the nice bishop is white, while his servants who carry rods around are black?

“In Germany, Sankt Nikolaus travels on his donkey and is accompanied by his white servant Ruprecht. Then we just get some sweets, chocolate and a small present in our shoe. We don’t have black slaves or a steamboat. We celebrate Christmas and give each other presents on 24 December,” says German Katrien Henss, a member of the Studium Generale staff. “When I saw Zwarte Piet for the first time it reminded me of Dutch colonialism and their stay in Indonesia. Okay, you can make a problem out of everything, but why is Zwarte Piet not white? I presume it’s a last relic of slavery. Parents should tell their children that Sinterklaas is a tradition and doesn’t have anything to do with reality.”

Josseline Berft, a German bachelor’s student of International Business, thinks parents should be aware of the influence the image of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet has. “Children of three or four don’t know the underlying meaning of black or white. But as they grow older their parents – and society – should point out to them that black people aren’t less worthy than whites.”

A black servant? Farkhunda Linda Khairzada, who is from Germany but has roots in Afghanistan, is surprised. “I’m not Christian; I only know the story my parents told me. I thought Zwarte Piet was just a bit dirty because he climbs through the chimneys – I never knew that he’s really black.” But knowing it now, she is concerned: “It will influence the children. If the black person is always the servant, children will think the social standard for black people is lower. Parents should correct that.”

Dutch bachelor’s student in Medicine, Daphne Schoenmakers, celebrates Sinterklaas every year. “My dad is Dutch, which is why we give each other presents on 5 December. My mother is French, so we celebrate Christmas in France with presents under the tree.” Schoenmakers thinks Sinterklaas is a nice Dutch tradition. “Children don’t give much thought to the difference between the white holy man and his black servants. At primary school we talked a lot about the ‘blackness’ of Zwarte Piet. Our teacher explained that it had nothing to do with racism.”


Riki Janssen

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