Dutch Holiday Tradition Now Includes Annual Debate Over Blackface

Dutch Holiday Tradition Now Includes Annual Debate Over Blackface

(Tenorio81/CCPL)
(Tenorio81/CCPL)

Robert Mackey, THE NEW YORK TIMES

(The New York Times)—Hundreds of Dutch citizens plan to don blackface this weekend for parades in honor of St. Nicholas, who according to local lore is accompanied by a dark-skinned helper know as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

The annual celebration of the saint known as Sinterklaas in Dutch, connected to his feast day on Dec. 6, has renewed an increasingly acrimonious debate over a tradition inspired in part by scenes from a 19th-century children’s book, “Saint Nicholas and His Servant.” The story by Jan Schenkman imagined the bearer of gifts for children arriving by boat from his home in Spain with a swarthy Moorish companion with curly hair, thick lips and a switch to beat children who were more naughty than nice.

Critics who call the tradition a racist echo of the nation’s colonial past plan to protest both the re-enactment of St. Nick’s arrival this year — to be staged in the city of Gouda on Saturday — and a parade in Amsterdam on Sunday.

The Netherland’s highest administrative court ruled on Wednesday that Amsterdam’s mayor was right to allow the parade, which features hundreds of actors in blackface playing Black Petes, despite the fact that many Dutch citizens of African descent find the depiction offensive. The ruling overturned the finding of a lower court which had called the traditonal depiction of the character “a negative stereotype” that “infringes on the European treaty of human rights.” The appeals court reasoned that only a threat to public order would justify canceling the parade, but declined to rule on the claim that the character is racist.

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