In Holland, the situation spins out of control. And me, I keep hearing echoes. Like cheap sequels made to cash in on the success of an original Hollywood blockbuster. For example, the Jaque al Rey demo in Madrid was a sequel to last year’s siege on parliament. It has become an even bigger failure than expected, partially because of the rain. Earlier this month, there has also been another ‘March against Monsanto’ after the surprise success of the original marches in May. And on October 19 there have been demo’s in various big cities as a sequel of the sequel of Global Revolution Day two years ago. Finally, in Turkey, authorities have stealthily moved in to destroy trees on the campus of Middle Eastern Technical University, causing daily clashes with the Darth Vaders in Ankara, and with protesters all over the country.
I have to admit, I haven’t been on top of these events. I won’t look into it. Instead, I will focus on what’s happening in Holland at the moment. You wouldn’t believe it, really. I have a feeling the whole country got caught up in a South Park episode.
It’s all about our most beloved annual tradition. The St. Nicholas celebration. If you’re not from Holland, you will not understand the emotional connection of the Dutch people with this holiday. This is why recent events have caused such an outcry.
Let me give you the basics of this holiday.
St. Nicholas is an old bishop, dressed in red with a long white beard who comes to Holland from Spain every November. He is the archetype of Santa Claus, ever since the Dutch brought the Sinterklaas celebrations to New Amsterdam in the 17th century.
Saint Nicholas, protector of sailors, children and thieves among others, is well over a thousand years old, but he is a man of his time. He comes to Holland on a steamer, and when he is here he rides on a majestic white horse. At night he rides the roofs, and if the children have been good, if they sang their songs to the old saint, if they left a carrot for the horse, he will reward them by leaving some candy or a small present.
The saint is a very vital man for his age, but with all the children in Holland, he can’t do this on his own. This is why he is accompanied every year by a band of ‘Black Petes’. They are Santa Little Helpers. They go down the chimneys to leave the little presents in the children’s shoes in front of the fire place.
The Petes are a jolly bunch. They are dressed in the colourful outfits of 17th century Spanish mercenaries, which makes them look a little like clowns. Their faces are painted with colours varying from light brown to pitch black.
Though the Petes are officially the old white man’s servants, they have been portrayed ever more as a kind of ‘cabinet’ for the Saint. There’s a Pete for every chore. Some are clumsy, some are funny, some are smart. The most beloved Petes are surely the Candy Pete, and the Presents Pete. The least popular one is Whiny Pete. The most feared, without a doubt, is Flagellation Pete. I’ll get to that.
The Saint himself is a wise and venerable old man, he comes here to judge and reward. He knows everything about all the children. It’s written down in the ‘Big Book of Saint Nicholas’, courtesy of the NSA.
For the children, such a figure inspires awe and respect, which creates distance, tension, submission. This is where the Petes come in. They defuse the drama, they put the old moral roots of the tradition in perspective. Children can relate to the Petes because they are down to earth, they like to joke around, they are cool.
From the moment the steamer arrives, children in all of the Netherlands, including the Dutch West Indies, are in joyful expectation of the ‘delightful evening’ of December 5, the climax of the festivities.
It’s the eve of the Saint’s birthday (actually it’s the day he died). Mysterious gloved hands are pounding suddenly and loudly on the window. On windows everywhere. Who will it be? It was Pete! He left a brown old bag, with presents and sweets for everyone.
Children under ten usually believe it is all true. This is why the Dutch television expressly prohibits the Saint from appearing on two channels simultaneously. Little children might start asking questions.
For children over ten and up to ages 99 and beyond, the St. Nicholas celebration has a different meaning. Everyone gets a little present, but the present is not what matters. It’s how you present it.
In all types of social organization – the family, the class room, the work floor, the football club, church, the board room – people draw lots a few weeks before the holiday. For the person you draw you are supposed to buy something small, worth only a few euros, and wrap it up in such a creative way as to express something about that person. Character traits, interests, a recent event. Sometimes people pimp up the wrapping into delicate sculptures made of boxes, papier maché, plastic tubes or whatever. Other people turn it into a treasure hunt, where clues are hidden throughout the location.
Each ‘surprise’ has to be accompanied by a brief poem in rhyme. It is customary for the poem to be signed by ‘Sint and Pete’ and dated ‘Madrid, December 5’. It serves the same purpose as the wrapping of the surprise, to highlight something about that person, to explain why this gift is appropriate, to tease and to make fun, or even to hint at something that not everybody knows…
This is what makes the St. Nicholas tradition so much fun. By roleplaying as a rhyming saint, people can say things about each other that they wouldn’t normally sign with their own name. Undoubtedly, some marriages are wrecked, and some relations for ever scared each year on December 5, but overall St. Nicholas eve is a joyful celebration for all ages.
So, you may wonder, what’s the big deal? Well, Pete is black. And with him being a servant to a white master, this raises the question of racism.
Every year the issue comes along and for the duration of the season it persists as a soft background noise in the small print of the papers. But this year, for some reason, the Black Pete Discussion is a major headline. It’s a bit weird actually, because there is more than enough serious news to report on. An ongoing diplomatic row with Russia, a major bank of ours (the ‘clean’ one) being fined 1 billion euros for fraud with interests rates, and the revelation that the NSA has been tapping millions of phone calls in the Netherlands.
No, all of this, doesn’t matter. Black Pete is on all the front pages. And the big question is: ‘Are we racist?’
Most people in Holland don’t like this discussion. Nine out of ten people want to Black Pete to stay the way he is. Even among the most politically correct left wing party and among immigrants of all colours, a majority is fine with Pete being black. ‘Of course we’re not racist,’ people seem to say, ‘Now don’t confuse the children’. And they wait for it to blow over.
The whole discussion came to a head when the United Nations got involved. A U.N. commission is currently investigating the supposed racist nature of the St. Nicholas celebrations, the same U.N. that goes around to enshrine every shred of folklore as ‘human heritage’. One of the commission’s members, with very dubious credentials, didn’t wait for the outcome to ventilate her personal opinion.
In a most ignorant and undiplomatic way she denounced the tradition as overtly racist and outdated. She placed all the blame with a hypothetical group of ‘organizers’, and she urged the prime minister to put an immediate stop to this monstrosity. She treated the Dutch national tradition as if it were some kind of evil practice of the Ku Klux Klan!
No wonder, the following day, Holland rose up.
While hundreds of thousands of children all over the Netherlands broke down and desperately cried at the thought that the United Nations might take away Black Pete, their parents started to organize themselves.
An initiative to save Black Pete on Facebook went viral and got one million supporters on the first day, and a million more on the second. The U.S. equivalent, adjusted for population size, would be 20 million hits per day.
At the same time, local militias of paramilitary Petes have been erecting road blocks and digging trenches around the villages and neighbourhoods of Holland to defend the St. Nicholas celebrations to the bitter end in case the U.N. actually invades. They will also make sure that the Saint will not enter their territory unless accompanied by Petes who are black beyond any reasonable doubt. Petes of other colours will be shot on sight.
The Southern States of the Netherlands have already threatened to secede from the Union in case Black Pete is emancipated. The situation is critical. The prime minister, when asked about the issue said that “Black Pete is black. There is nothing I can do about it.” But it didn’t do much to appease the spirits.
It gets worse. Remember Martin Luther King? The March on Washington for civil rights? Now, imagine tens or even hundreds of thousands of people with painted faces marching on The Hague in defence of a white man’s right to be black. No kidding, not this time. It’s going to happen tomorrow on the Malieveld, Holland’s most symbolic protest venue. Our own version of Taksim Square.
What can I say? Well, obviously, I can say that the Dutch are out their minds. And that is exactly what I like about this country. Dutch people are usually open-minded, practical, tolerant, easy-going, etc. Only once in a while, for very different reasons, people here just collectively freak out. I can also say that the critics have a point. Depending on how you interpret the figure (there are dozens of schools of thought on the subject), you can definitely argue that there is a racist component to the original Black Pete. But that doesn’t mean that the contemporary St. Nicholas celebration teaches racist values to children.
The celebration has already changed a lot over the last century. Until recently Black Pete wasn’t cool at all. He was kind of a mob boss’s body guard, ready to screw you up for life at the Saint’s wish. As a kid, if you had been bad, you wouldn’t get candy or sweets, you would get whipped, then stuffed into a dirty old bag and taken back to Spain.
Nobody really knows what happens to the bad kids in Spain, but people commonly believe that they work as slaves on the Saint’s estate under supervision of the Petes. Now how’s that for racism? A black guy whipping spoiled white kids and forcing them to pick oranges fourteen hours a day? They would be returned to Holland after a year, with a note for their parents: ‘Rest assured, your kid will never be naughty again.’
The flagellation, abduction and enslavement of small children for educational purposes has become very rare lately. St. Nicholas has become much more humane with age, and his Petes have become much more fun. They may even become a little less black some day, but if that happens, it will be because the Dutch decide so themselves. Not because of some United Nations commission mingling with our traditions.
There is also an ironic side to the whole question, which will not go unnoticed, I hope. To illustrate this I will divide the world into St. Nicholas countries (the West), and Black Pete countries (the rest). Historically, the St. Nicholas countries, and Holland in particular, have this nasty urge to go to the Black Pete countries, colonize them, and rudely dismiss their culture as backward and outdated.
This time someone from a Black Pete country has come to Holland with an index finger raised and a complete lack of relevant knowledge, to say that we – a civilized St. Nicholas nation! – are effectively a bunch of barbarians.
So now we know how it feels.