Zwarte Piet: The Racist Dutch Christmas Tradition

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Often, when we think of the customs and traditions of different countries, we look to them with respect and appreciation. However, this is not the case with the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet.

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a Christmas tradition that takes place every year on the 5th of December in the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ (Santa Clause) helper, and across the small European country, Dutch children are excited for the duo’s arrival each year. The tradition is said to be the creation of schoolteacher Jan Schenkman, first introduced in a children’s book he published in the 1850s. In the story, Zwarte Piet helps Sinterklass during the festive period by kidnapping bad children and taking them to Spain.

Over time, the story has evolved into Zwarte Piet’s arrival being something children look forward to, instead of fear. Both Sinterklass and Zwarte Piet appear in parades across the country in early December, where they hand out sweets to the children.

The racist aspect of this tradition is that those who dress up as Zwarte Piet do so in complete blackface. The character of Piet involves an outfit of  black face paint, curly black wigs, exaggerated red lipstick and gold earrings. As such, these parades involve the attendance of hundreds of white people dressed up in blackface.

In recent years, the racist tradition has received great criticism. Many Dutch people have argued such parades are horrific and have no place in modern Dutch society. Supporters of the Zwarte Piet tradition have argued that Piet is covered in soot from going down the chimney and therefore those who emulate him are not doing blackface.

These criticisms have resulted in the ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ campaign, which advocates an end to the tradition. In some cities, changes have been made. For example, in 2016, Amsterdam announced there would no longer be any blackface permitted at its annual Sinterklaas parade. Instead, Zwarte Piet has become ‘Schoorsteen Piet’ or ‘Chimney Piet’ who has soot on his face and a different outfit.

According to the BBC, in recent months, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has also started to become ‘sceptical’ about the tradition. In 2014, Rutte revealed that, like many other Dutch people, he had dressed up as Zwarte Piet (with blackface) in the past. He was previously of the opinion that the tradition isn’t offensive. However, he now believes that Zwarte Piet will likely not exist in a few years and no longer has a place in Dutch society.

Zwarte Piet is a very interesting subject when it comes to thinking about traditions. It allows us to understand how the Netherlands, and other European countries, are being influenced by their legacies of colonialism and racism into the 21st century. Through Piet, we can see how racism injects itself into all areas of society, even during the festive season.  Zwarte Piet is a huge physical reminder of all the institutionally racist aspects of a society that are not on display everyday. As time passes and today’s generation better educate themselves on racist and problematic aspects on their country, they come into conflict with older generations who may support these traditions.

It is now more important than ever that the tradition of Zwarte Piet comes to an end, and the Dutch people acknowledge there is no place for such practices in today’s world.

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Deputy Editor 2020/21. Final year History student.

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