One shockingly disturbing example of blatant racism being masked as “innocent tradition” is ZWARTE PIET (Black Piet); a coonish character which is part of the December-feast of St Nicholas in Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg (5-6 December). For centuries these celebrations have included public parades with a white man or woman painted in blackface, dressed in fashion from 16th century Spain, being the servant (slave) of St Nicholas. The Dutch LOVE this Zwarte Piet and millions are upset about the campaigns by Black activists over the last years to stop this tradition.
To trace the origin of Zwarte Piet, one must study the fable of Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a quite modern synthesis of myths and histories of European paganism and Christian development. The dominant character is St Nicholas, a medieval saint who remained very popular for hundreds of years, through celebrations championed by the Christian church. Through many mixed layers of Germanic and Celtic pagan influences, Roman and Oriental traditions, the celebrations of St Nicholas had strong undertones of spiritual darkness and ritualistic traditions. As Protestantism rose throughout Europe (attempting to eliminate pagan elements) the St Nicholas tradition needed a revamp. And who better to fill the position than a “Black Slave”?
Through a number of names (all meaning, or referring to, ‘devil’) Zwarte Piet emerged as Black boy, caught and chained to be St Nicholas’s servant for the December celebration. He would be depicted as a creature that would drop candy for children through chimneys, but he also carried a bag in which he would “carry away” children who behaved badly. City parades at this time would include a white person dressed up as a “blackamoor” (a depiction of Black men as smiling, jewelry-bling’ed-out servant sculptures – clearly an ‘artistic’ attempt to depict the Black Moors who once ruled Europe with power as powerless). As a racist tradition that has survived very well in the Netherlands, a Jungian psychoanalytic interprets this to be linked to twisted colonial power-imageries relived with sexual overtones – and, of course, explained as “innocent fun”.
The Afrikan population in the Netherlands (and its former colonies) have repeatedly protested this tradition, enraged debates are now moving towards the centre and there is a growing awareness to take legal and civil action against the parades. It is one major case brought before government and courts by Afrikan activists here, as part of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). Dozens of protesters were arrested by the police when they did a quiet protest in December 2014 and more protests are building up for this year. The parades are still continuing. Many Dutch people are not willing to part with the tradition and have suggested to refashion the make-up of Zwarte Piet, to have less African-charicatured features etc. But, the people on the ground can’t be fooled. They see what is going on, and they are not going to have it. Sisters and Brothers I talk to confirm a strong belief that this is one tradition that they will force to die. And soon they will call on the rest of the Afrikan world to stand up in solidarity with them. I charge that we respond to that call – LOUDLY!