Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sinterklaas & Zwart Piet

Nothing quite says “Christmas” like reggae music and blackfaced court jesters!

Most European cultures have their own holiday traditions, and the Dutch are no different. Every year, “Sinterklaas,” a tall, white-bearded bishop with a red cape, arrives in the Netherlands from his home in Spain. The day after his arrival, he makes his way to Amsterdam, first on a boat via the Amstel River, and then on the back of a white horse through the middle of the city.

Of course, Sinterklaas has his helper, Zwart Piet (“Black Pete”), in tow. ZP, as I’ll call him, was once upon a time a slave. Now, ZP’s black face is explained by parents as the “soot that he gets when he comes down the chimney.”

Sinter and ZP travel across the country, landing on rooftops on the white horse, then coming down the chimney to leave chocolates and almonds, etc. for the children who have behaved well. The kids are encouraged to leave carrots and straw to feed the horse.

The troubling part of the deal is ZP. For whatever reason, ZP is a Caucasian person wearing “blackface” painting. It’s more than unnerving, and for most Americans (I think) borders on being outright offensive. And there’s not just one ZP. The official ZP crew appears to be two or three, but every single helper, entertainer, driver, band instrument player, parade horse shit scooper, side of the building rapeller, and acrobat is outfitted in the standard ZP garb: A multicolored, silk court jester outfit, complete with feathered hat. Go ahead, Google “Zwart Piet” and see what you find and make your own call!

Anyway, back to this past Sunday, when we took the kids to the Dam square in Amsterdam Centrum to witness Sinterklaas’s arrival. As a reggae band (?) performed traditional “WE LOVE YOU, SINTERKLAAS!” songs, the kids had a blast, especially since the legions of ZPs hand out the traditional Sinterklaas cookie, the pepernoten. These are little crunchy ginger cookies (not to be confused with the German pfeffernusse) are handed out in the Netherlands and Belgium, carried in enormous burlap sacks. All of the kids along the parade route can be heard screaming “Piet! Piet!” so they can get a few handfuls. Plus, the weather was beautiful.

Here's a short video clip that I captured of the man himself riding into Dam square:

We’re settling in well, with most of our furniture in place…we’re just awaiting the delivery of our family room couches from Ikea. A bunch of boxes still need to be unpacked, which might take a bit of time to complete.

I took my road bike out of Amsterdam for a 50k (31-mile) jaunt today, and really enjoyed some beautiful pastoral scenery. I’ll have much more on the Amsterdam cycling scene in an upcoming post.

Tomorrow: Another meeting with government officials to get residency cards; finding a chiropractor; finalizing Christmas travel plans.


Lisa Smith-Batchen said...

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Batchens

Anonymous said...

Hey Presslers! Happy Thanksgiving to you guys.

Dennis McMinn

XO-1.ORG said...

Greg: Black Pete was not a slave. He was a Moor, a Muslim / Arab, from Spain. The Moors were (are) dark-skinned, more brown than black. Painting one's face to portray Black Pete is not in the least bit racist; it's an accepted form of costuming in the theatrical world. No disrespect is intended towards black, brown, or polkadot people. It's a coincidence that it resembles, or reminds some people, of "black face" from Vaudeville. Remember, you're in Europe now, not the USA with its racial hang-ups!

By the way, Sinter Klaas (Santa Claus) was St. Nicholas, who was from Turkey: another Middle Easterner, just like Black Pete. And yet these guys help us celebrate Christmas!

I was in Holland when I was three and I remember vividly when Klaas and Pete came to the home where we were staying. I noticed that Pete's face was black, but his hands weren't, so I knew he wasn't real; that ruined it all for me on some level and probably helped me figure out that Santa Claus wasn't exactly real ahead of schedule.

BTW, we then continued on to Germany for Christmas eve and hiked out into the forest in the snow to cut down the tree on Christmas eve. We put it up in the living room of our friends' house where we were staying and put real, burning candles all over it! Since the tree was freshly cut down and all green, it wasn't likely to catch fire. Good memories!

PS Speaking of European Christmas traditions, what I really don't understand is the "Christkind" thing in Germany! Now THAT is weird!