The story of Sinterklaas

I was recently introduced to the Dutch holiday tradition known as Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is a Santa Claus like character who comes from Spain, or is it Turkey? I haven’t really gotten a straight answer about this one yet. Regardless, he comes from somewhere warm, on a boat, with lots of presents and helpers. These helpers known as “Zwarte Piet” (black Pete) are covered from head to toe in soot from the chimneys they scurry down to deliver presents to children in the middle of the night. Sounds pretty familiar right? For a week following the arrival of Sinterklaas children place carrots (for Sinterklas’ horses) in their shoes and put them by the window hoping to find a present in them in the morning. If the little boy or girl has been good they will receive a present, BUT if they have not behaved Sinterklaas will take them away in the middle of the night and bring them with him back to Spain (or Turkey)…

This year the festivities were planned to take place right outside of our living room window. Sebastiaan and I had completely forgotten about the arrival of Sinterklaas this year so when we looked outside our window in the morning I was not quite prepared for what I saw.

There was a crowd of a few hundred of Dutch people in black face. No seriously, black paint on their faces and hands, AND as is the tradition, the children were also dressed up as Zwarte Pieten. We just had to go outside to get a closer look. So there I am 26 years old standing with my boyfriend surrounded by hundreds of screaming blonde children with black paint on their faces.

All I could think about was, what would happen if someone tried to do this in America? I can only imagine how long it would take for just about every civil rights organization out there to be up in arms putting an end to Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet for good. As shocked and mildly offended as I was, it was hard not to be swept into the joy of this unique Dutch tradition. The children laughed, waved and sang songs to Sinterklas while parents held them on their shoulders, took pictures and sipped on hot chocolate.

I have to say it was all pretty sweet. I even found myself thinking, “wow, I can’t wait to do this with my kids.” I think we’ll just have  to do without the black face paint…


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