Friday, December 16, 2011

Zwarte Piet - Dutch Christmas or Offensive Blackface?


Hmm, would it really be so awful if Americans adopted an African American (or Asian American or Hispanic) elf or two in a nice way?

The Wildly Racist Caricature Holland Celebrates Every Christmas Season

Donning the Blackface
The Sinterklaas feast in Holland celebrates the name day of St. Nicholas, patron saint of children and sailors. On Sinterklaas Eve, Dec. 5, children receive presents, and some adults dress up as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), by Dutch tradition the helper of Sinterklaas. Here someone applies black and red makeup to a man dressed as Zwarte Piet

Peter Boon

 This has nothing to do being racial it is an old tradition for kids. Nobody gets hurt or insulted. Please leave this alone and not being so overly sensitive on those issues.
Danno likes this.


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 There is "nothing racial" about images of coal-black-skin with big watermelon-red lips in a clownlike grimace? "Nothing racial" about a black "personal servant" to an old white man in the country that was once the lynchpin of the international slave trade? Seriously?! And if no one gets hurt or insulted, where has all of the controversy come from over the last few decades?
 Matthew Sobol, A Damn Ned and AYC like this.


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 It comes from people who look for things to be insulted about. Are you suggesting that the "coal black skin with big watermelon red lips" man resembles a real human? Just about as much as a green grinch. There are so many real problems, why worry about something like that? How does it change your life? Do you think it makes kids somehow see things differently in regards to people of color? Should we draw the elves tall because it might offend those with below average height?

23 Minutes Ago

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 Matthew Sobol

 @ Peter Boon; What part of "comes from Spain by steamship bringing with him a black helper of African origin" or "The Dutch were deeply involved in the slave trade, both transporting African slaves to be sold and using slave labor to work coffee and sugar plantations in their colonies." is not clear to you??

17 Minutes Ago

 · Reply

Zwarte Piet

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Strooigoed and Kruidnoten mix for scattering
In the folklore and legends of the Netherlands and Belgium, Zwarte Piet (About this sound pronunciation ) (meaning Black Pete) is a companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas) whose yearly feast in the Netherlands is usually celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaas-avond, that is St. Nicolas Eve) and 6 December in Belgium, when they distribute sweets and presents to all good children.
The characters of Zwarte Pieten appear only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas's feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by boat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain). The tasks of the Zwarte Pieten are mostly to amuse children, and to scatter pepernoten, Kruidnoten and "strooigoed" (special sinterklaas-candies) for those who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools, and other places.
The original Zwarte Piet is sometimes associated with Knecht Ruprecht, but in the Low Countries the tradition has not merged with Christmas.



[edit] History

  • 1845: Jan Schenkman writes Saint Nicholas and his Servant; Piet is described in this book as a page, and is depicted as a dark man wearing clothes associated with a moor. Steamboat travel becomes part of the mythos from this point. In the 1850 version of Schenkman's book, they are depicted looking much as they do today. In later editions Piet was shown in the page costume, the book stayed (with some changes) in print until 1950 and can be seen as the foundation of the current celebration, even though it did use a lot of older ideas and customs.[1]
  • 1891: in the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas the servant is named Pieter, until 1920 there were several books giving him other names, and in live appearances the name and looks still varied considerably.
  • In the early 20th century the Civilized Standard Celebration for children, with Zwarte Piet as the standard personal servant of the saint, spread throughout the country. In the 1930s urban adults become more involved too and the arrival of Saint Nicholas and his Zwarte Pieten are staged, which more or less explains the shift from the 6th to the 5th of December, as the adults would celebrate on the eve of the saint's day.
  • During the 20th century, the number of Sinterklaas' servants multiplied. This paradigm shift opened possibilities to create (for TV and such) lots of different characters being a "Zwarte Piet" at the same time. For example, there's a "Hoofd Piet" (Head Piet) who carries the book of Sinterklaas, "Rijm Piet" (Rhyme Piet), et cetera. Especially during the televised yearly event, when Sinterklaas arrives by boat he is often assisted by dozens of Piets.
The Dutch now celebrate Sinterklaas (5 December) with an exchange of gifts. These presents are given anonymously, but are often accompanied by poems (Sinterklaasgedicht), signed by "Zwarte Piet" or "Sint", which are read aloud during Sinterklaas evening for the enjoyment of the ones assembled. The poems often are teasing in nature.

[edit] Origin and evolution

The first origin of Zwarte Piet can probably found by the god Wodan (often written as Odin). Riding the white horse Sleipnir he flew through the air and was the leader of the Wild Hunt. He was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. Those helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimney - which was just a hole in the roof at that time - to tell Wodan about the good and bad behaviours of the mortals.[2][3][4] During the Christianization, Pope Gregory I argued that conversions were easier if people were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditions, while claiming that the traditions were in honour of the Christian God. Saint Nicolas tradition is one of them, converting Wodan to a Christian counterpart.[5]
According to myths dating to the beginning of the 19th century, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) operated by himself or in the companionship of a devil. Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas Eve, the devil was shackled and made his slave. A devil as a helper of the Saint can also still be found in Austrian Saint Nicholas tradition in the character of Krampus.
Some sources indicate that in Germanic Europe, Zwarte Piet originally was such a mastered devil forced to assist his captor, but the character emerged in the 19th century within the Netherlands as a companion of Saint Nicholas resembling a Moor.[6] Saint Nicholas is said to come from Turkey. The relation of Zwarte Piet with Haji Firuz is incredibly close, Haji Firuz is a traditional herald of Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration, exactly black in the face and comes with Amoo Nowruz a white bearded old man who brings gifts for the children counter part of Western Santa.
The introduction of this new Zwarte Piet was paired with a change in the attitude of the Sinterklaas character that was often shown as being quite rough against bad children himself and thought unbefitting of a Bishop by teachers and priests. Soon after the introduction of Zwarte Piet as Sinterklaas' helper, both characters adapted to a softer character.[7]
Still, the lyrics of older traditional Sinterklaas songs warn that while Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten will leave well-behaved children presents, they will punish those who have been very naughty. For example they will take bad children and carry these children off in a burlap sack to their homeland of Spain, where, according to legend, Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten dwell out of season. These songs and stories also warned that a child who has been only slightly naughty will not get a present, but a "roe", which is a bundle of birch twigs, (as a warning they could have gotten a birching instead) or will simply receive a lump of coal instead of gifts.
Until the second half of the 20th century, Saint Nicholas' helper was not too bright, in line with the old colonial traditions. Once immigration started from the former colonised countries Zwarte Piet became a much more respected assistant of Saint Nicholas, who is often a bit inattentive, but playfull.[8]
According to the more modern Saint Nicholas legend, a Zwarte Piet is a servant who accompanies Saint Nicholas on his holiday travels. In some versions, Saint Nicholas is said to have liberated a young slave named Peter, who decided to serve Nicholas. Zwarte Piet is today commonly depicted as a black person in the colorful pantaloons, feathered cap and ruffles of a Renaissance European page, a tradition that started based on a single illustration in a book published in 1850.
Zwarte Pieten are often portrayed as mischievous but rarely mean-spirited characters. The character is believed to have been derived from pagan traditions of evil spirits. Also told for decades is a story that the Zwarte Pieten are black because of chimney soot and/or in mockery of the darker Spanish occupiers of the Low Countries in centuries past.

[edit] Current affairs

During recent years the role of Zwarte Pieten has become part of a recurring debate in the Netherlands. Controversial practices include holiday revellers blackening their faces, wearing afro wigs, gold jewellery and bright red lipstick,[9] and walking the streets throwing candy to passers-by.
Foreign tourists, particularly Americans, often experience culture shock upon encountering the character (to dress in blackface is considered offensive in the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries). Since the last decade of the 20th century there have been several attempts to introduce a new kind of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch population, where the Zwarte Pieten replaced their traditional black make-up with all sorts of colours.[10] In 2006 the NPS (en: Dutch Programme Foundation) as an experiment replaced the black Pieten by rainbow-coloured Pieten, but in 2007 reverted to the traditional all-black Pieten.[11]
The tradition continues to be popular in the Netherlands, though some activists have been moved to protest against it. Four people wearing t-shirts saying "Zwarte Piet is racist" were arrested in the second weekend of November 2011.[12]
The largest Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada, slated for 3 December 2011 in New Westminster, British Columbia, was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1985 after clashes of opinion surrounding the traditional character Zwarte Piet or "Black Peter". Rather than leaving out Zwarte Piet, the organizers decided to cancel the festivities as a whole, because, as spokesperson Tako Slump of the organization said: [13]
"We got a lot of replies back from our customers in the Dutch community," he said. "It became pretty clear to us that we love Sinterklaas and we can't have it without Black Peter. Those two go together,"

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ "St Nicholas en zijn knecht" by Jan Schenkman
  2. ^ Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in dutch). Retrieved 2007-11-29. 
  3. ^ Almekinders, Jaap (2005). "Wodan en de oorsprong van het Sinterklaasfeest (Wodan and the origin of Saint Nicolas' festivity)" (in dutch). Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  4. ^ Christina, Carlijn (2006). "St. Nicolas and the tradition of celebrating his birthday" (in english). Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  5. ^ "Sinterklaas is Wodan (Saint Nicolas is Wodan)" (in dutch). Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  6. ^ "Jan Schenkman" (in dutch). Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  7. ^ Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in dutch). Retrieved 2007-11-29. 
  8. ^ "Oorsprong van de feesten. Wie is Sint Niklaas?" (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 2009-05-03. Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  9. ^ "Question of the Month: Who is Black Peter?". January 2005. Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  10. ^ 'Black Peter' a tradition that divides Dutch, Chicago Sun-Times, December 3, 1999. Accessed on the Internet Archive February 17, 2008, archived from July 8, 2007.[dead link]
  11. ^ (Dutch) Piet weer zwart ("Pete black again"), De Telegraaf, November 15, 2007. Accessed online February 17, 2008.
  12. ^ "Anti-Zwarte Piet activists arrests prompts new debate". Dutch 17 November 2011. 
  13. ^ "New Westminster Sinterklaas festival Cancelled". Royal City Record. 29 November 2011.

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