Traditions are usually strongly associated with the past. It seems as if they have always existed and have always been the same. Changing them feels almost like blasphemy. So, when traditions contain elements which don’t fit with our modern values, this can become a big problem. The controversy surrounding the Dutch celebration of ‘Sinterklaas’ (Saint Nicholas) is a perfect illustration of this.
The legend is that Saint Nicholas lives in Spain and travels to the Netherlands each year, to bring presents for children. He is accompanied by servants, who are called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Petes). The arrival of Saint Nicholas is enacted in almost all cities and villages and is also broadcasted on national television. The past few years his arrival has been accompanied by a lot of controversy surrounding Black Pete. Black Pete is typically portrayed by white people, who paint their faces black (blackface) and wear frizzy wigs, golden hoop earrings and red lipstick: he looks exactly like a racist caricature of a black person. This is why, since 1930, people have been arguing that his appearance should be changed. A shrinking majority of Dutch people wants to keep Black Pete, arguing that they don’t see how the figure is harmful. The legend is that Black Pete climbs down the chimney to bring presents to children, so it is argued that he is black because he is covered with chimney soot. However, the chimney-story doesn’t explain the red lips, frizzy hair and golden earrings. These characteristics stem from 1850, when Black Pete as we recognize him today was introduced. He was dressed like a Moorish page, the North African servant (slave) of the Spanish nobility. It is obvious that racist caricatures have influenced Black Pete.
Yet many Dutch people deny that their tradition is tainted by racism. The ‘attack’ on Black Pete, who they have never experienced as racist, brings forth intense feelings. Violence has been used against people protesting Black Pete and in 2017 people have tried to keep them from protesting by obstructing a highway. Many people are afraid that the disappearance of Black Pete will ultimately result in more traditions being ‘taken’ from ‘Dutch people’ by people from other cultures. Black Pete has become a symbol of the perceived loss of Dutch identity and culture.
One line of argument in favour of Black Pete, is maintaining that the tradition of Saint Nicholas is in fact many centuries old. There are many stories about the ‘true’ origin of Black Pete. It is suggested that he descends from one of the ravens of the Germanic god Wodan (Odin), or that he is related to Krampus, a black-skinned devil-like figure from central European folklore. Sometimes it is argued that the colour of Black Pete stems from a pre-Christian Germanic midwinter tradition. That would mean that the black skin is not the consequence of racism, but stems from way before colonial racism. So, it is argued, Black Pete is not racist and doesn’t need to change.
By these origin stories, Black Pete is essentialized: he is either a raven of Wodan, ór a monster like Krampus, ór a black slave. His black skin is either racist ór symbolizes ‘darkness’, for example. In fact, Black Pete is the product of different historical elements and has changed a lot, even in the past 150 years. In 1850, Saint Nicholas had only one Black Pete, who threatened children. Today Saint Nicholas is surrounded by many Black Petes, who hand out candy. Traditions are complex and ever-changing, acquiring new meanings which merge with older interpretations. The black skin might not have referred to black people originally, but its meaning has changed, because of racism among other reasons.
Traditions provide us with opportunities to appreciate the past, but also to deal with the errors of history. Black people in the Netherlands are not kept as slaves anymore and racism is forbidden by law, but that does not mean they don’t experience racism. Traditions often show that traces from a past we collectively denounce can persist in the modern world. However, to be able to change as a culture, we have to realize that changing is not the same as losing our ‘identity’. After all, this year Saint Nicholas arrived by train instead of traditional steamboat and no one is complaining about this change. An important cause of the resistance to changing Black Pete, is that ‘other people’ who are not considered truly Dutch, advocate for this change. ‘They’ want to change ‘our’ culture. ‘We’ needs to become inclusive of all people living in the Netherlands. Then, changing traditions can actually strengthen our national identity, by including and uniting all Dutch people, also those who are not white.