Sinterklaas [Santa Claus] arrives from Spain by steamboat in late November, travels farther on horseback, climbs onto roofs and on December 5 drops presents through the chimney with the help of the Black Petes, a crew of dark-skinned helpers wearing large earrings who cavort and entertain and, as Dutch parents often tell their children, owe their blackness to chimney soot.
Black Pete has recently come under fire. Among those who called for the abolition of Black Peter was the popular singer, Anouk, who is white. He received numerous insults and threats via social media. A plan for a Sinterklaas parade with a proposed compromise, Green Petes, had to be cancelled after threats were made against its planners.
There was a debate in parliament, which underscores how deep within the Netherlands’s prosperous and safe society lies the fear of losing identity, undoubtedly fuelled by globalization, migration and the notion that the European Union is gradually doing away with the European nation state.
During the triumphal entry of St. Nicholas into the Netherlands this year, a national happening whereby a sort of street theatre is performed on the children’s behalf, the Black Petes were in attendance once again, albeit this time with less ostentatious golden earrings. For security’s sake, the saint himself was accompanied by armed Petes in bulletproof vests.
The truly disturbing thing is the aggression conjured up by this public debate, the thinly disguised xenophobia that roiled to the surface when attempts were made to make Black Pete less black. A civilized person, after all, could say: “Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with Black Pete, but if others do, well, then, why don’t we make him Green Pete or Blue Pete?”
But no. To the utter amazement of many, at least two million Dutch people have taken the stance: “Black Pete, c’est moi.”
Source: Based on a story by Arnon Grunberg in the New York Times, December 2