The tradition of Sinterklaas and his helpers appears to have come from a book written circa 1850 called ‘Saint Nicholas & his Servant’ clearly showing the character to be based on a slave. However I don’t believe that the modern day Piet is portrayed as a person of ‘lesser worth’. In fact the children often get more excited about Zwarte Piet than about Sinterklaas. The Piets are the ones who play with the children, sing, dance and throw out sweets and ‘pepernoten’. Sint appears as an absent minded, friendly old man who sits either on his horse (Amerigo) or on a chair practicing the royal wave. It is common for children to dress up during the festivities and for every one child who dresses up as Sinterklaas there appears to be about 100 dressed up as Zwarte Piet!
My son attends a very multicultural school with Dutch children of many colours and heritages. The parents received an email some time ago informing us that the Zwarte Piet tradition would go ahead as always. Considering the various racial backgrounds in the school I was curious as to the feelings of other parents and asked the headmaster about it. Whilst it had been agreed within the school to phase out particular aspects of Zwarte Piet’s appearance and demeanour over the coming years (the earring and blood red lips will be no more) as other schools, shops, and city councils are doing, Zwarte Piet‘s character isn’t seen as insulting or offensive and will continue to be celebrated To quote one (darker skinned) parent, the current debate over Zwarte Piet is “onzin” (nonsense).
Whilst my views on Zwarte Piet have changed over the years I fully realise that my perspective is a very ‘white’ perspective and my views are my own and not everyone’s. There are many groups calling for a ban on Zwarte Piet however I don’t believe that outlawing Zwarte Piet will work. Instead of banning it why not enhance it. Instead of just Zwarte Piet why not have Zwarte Piet, Witte Piet, Gele Piet, Bruine Piet… Black Piet, White Piet, Yellow Pete, Brown Piet. Sinterklaas is after all a festival for children and as long the Petes keep singing, dancing and throwing pepernoten I really don’t think the children will mind what colour their faces are painted.