Zwarte Piet

Yesterday we made our annual visit to Westminster Quay for the arrival of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (St. Nicolaas and Black Peter). It was too cold and wet for pictures, but here's one from last year. Note Ariana caressing the jeweled sceptre.


I have very fond childhood memories of this Dutch tradition, where the stately old Spanish bishop in his red velvet robes brings gifts for the good children, but dispenses his blackfaced helper to spank the naughty ones, or worse, carry them off to Spain in a large burlap sack.

I clearly remember sitting with my schoolmates in the gym of my elementary school (a private school where most children were of Dutch heritage), waiting for Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet to arrive. Despite the fun of scrambling for pepernoten (small ginger cookies) tossed into the crowd, I was terrified of both the imposing St. Nicolaas and his mattenklopper-wielding helper.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized how unusual it is to have a cultural custom that involves blackface. I've heard many different explanations for Zwarte Piet's black skin: he was an orphaned slave adopted by St. Nicolaas; he was a Moorish assistant who enjoyed helping out the bishop; his skin was blackened by soot from coming down the chimney; he was a little black devil.

As a kid I didn't assign any ethnicity to Zwarte Piet; he was so cartoonish that he seemed a clown more than anything. Or is that racism right there?

Every winter there is renewed debate in the Netherlands over whether Black Peter is innocent good fun, or a horrifying embodiment of racism. The US-based head office of a cocoa processing plant in the Netherlands has banned this year's Sinterklaas party on company property because of concerns about racism.

There was a push a few years ago in Holland for Zwarte Piet to be colours other than black. Children were to be told that Zwarte Piet was pink or blue because St. Nicolaas' ship had passed through a rainbow on the way into harbour. This new interpretation has not been widely embraced.

I'm not sure where I stand on this. I love the tradition of Sinterklaas, but I'm taken aback every year by the blackface. Have my politically correct sensitivities been too finely honed by years in Vancouver?

The fact that it's a Dutch tradition being celebrated in Canada also makes it difficult to contextualize. Would having the entire country abuzz, watching the arrival of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet live on national television, and storefront displays of golliwogs make it more acceptable? Or more sinister?