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Debate over Black Pete Christmas Tradition is dividing Holland



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Debate over Black Pete Christmas Tradition is dividing Holland

Post by Kitkat on 20th November 2013, 16:42

17 November 2013

It's a tradition going back centuries - in the Netherlands and Belgium the end of November means the arrival of Sinterklaas and his band of happy helpers known as Black Petes.

It may have lasted over the years but to watch lots of white men with heavily painted faces, red lips, and black curls is a distinctly disorienting experience.

Amsterdam artist Quinsy Gario is one of those who feels the Saint Nikolaus parade is outdated in 2013.

   There's a white guy on a horse, and he is served by a lot black people. They're still jolly fellows, they still sing and dance, they're still acting a bit silly. And that's a stereotype.

His argument has had support from independent representatives of UN Human Rights Commission.

Verene Shepherd, who received complaints about the ceremony described it as racist and a throw back to slavery.

She believed it should be abolished though the UN have distanced themselves from her comments. Others however took them very personally and Ms Shepherd has faced death threats and racial abuse.

But don't mention abolition to the hundreds of thousands who have filled the streets for years to greet the Black Petes and see them as a treasured custom.

A Facebook page set up in support received 2 million likes within a couple of days.

That the debate has become so toxic has made many question what it reflects in the supposedly pragmatic Dutch culture at a time when support for far right parties is on the rise and the politicians are being very careful about what they say.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte stating, “Black Pete is black. That’s that."

Folklore has it they travel on a steamboat from Spain and on December 5th Sinterklaas dispatches his Zwarte Piets down the chimneys to deliver presents.

Every year hundreds of thousands fill the streets to welcome them - but now the tradition of the white man and his helpers with their faces painted black wearing Afro wigs has delivered a racism debate that is polarising Dutch society.

Dutch 'Black Pete' Christmas custom sparks protests
Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Father Christmas and his blacked-up helpers Zwarte Pieten, or Black Peters, arrive in Amsterdam amid protests claiming the tradition is racist

In the Dutch holiday tradition, Sinterklaas or Father Christmas arrives by steamboat in mid-November and spends a month in the country with dozens of the Petes, who traditionally wear pageboy uniforms, black make-up, curly wigs and large, painted on red lips.

The whole affair culminates in a night of gift-giving on Dec 5.

Protesters say the Petes are blatant racist caricatures and should be banned. the tradition's defenders say there is no racial insult intended by Black Pete and that the dissent is a sign of political correctness gone awry.

The debate over the figure has gone on for years, but it is now electrifying – and polarising – the Netherlands as never before.

Anti-Pete protester Quinsy Gario told a group of about 300 supporters in Amsterdam that "it's no longer possible to accept racism in the Netherlands in 2013".

Mr Gario, an artist who has emerged as the public face of the anti-Pete movement, has been subjected to insults as well as death threats.

He said the growing support underlines the change the national debate over Black Pete has recently undergone.

The debate exploded in the national media this year after it emerged that a panel of UN cultural experts was examining whether the tradition is racist.

Some anti-Pete activists have suggested his blackface should be replaced with black smudges, since children are usually told his face has become black from going down chimneys.

A few weeks ago, more than two million people responded to remarks critical of the Dutch tradition by a UN expert by endorsing a Facebook petition to keep Zwarte Piet's image unchanged.

Where St Nicholas has his Black Pete(s), Charges of Racism Follow

On Sunday morning, under a heavy November sky, he climbed off a steamboat near the Maritime Museum and then, astride a tall white horse and clad in the red-and-gold cloak and miter of a bishop, to the cheers of tens of thousands of children and their parents, he paraded into the center of town accompanied by his faithful servant, Black Peter.

Well, more accurately, servants. For surrounding St. Nicholas, who comes into Dutch cities every year at this time in a mix of Mardi Gras and Christmas to prepare for his feast day on Dec. 6, abounded hundreds of Black Petes in a swirl of activity. There are Black Petes playing music or singing; Black Petes on horseback; Black Petes on stilts handing out balloons and candy; and Black Petes scaling with ropes the facades of department stores or cavorting on the roofs of six-story buildings.

Another St. Nicholas arrived on Saturday afternoon. He sat quietly on a makeshift stage in a tiny square near the Stock Exchange, dreadlocks flowing from under his gold-and-red miter, but without Black Pete. For if Black Peter is a white Netherlander in blackface, this St. Nicholas was a member of the country’s small black minority, and he was presiding at a demonstration by several hundred people, black and white, denouncing Black Pete as racist.

The arrival of St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas here (the Dutch carried Sinterklaas to New Amsterdam, now New York, where it was later pronounced Santa Claus; he carries his own bags), is an event in several European countries, though only in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium is he accompanied by Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet in Dutch. Portrayed by men and women in blackface makeup, Peter sports outlandish Renaissance costumes (the kind, critics say, Renaissance lords dressed their slaves in for paintings by the old masters), with thick red lips and frizzy hairdo wigs or fake dreadlocks. Big hoop earrings were once part of the outfit, but they have been sacrificed recently in a concession to critics.

Black Pete is a dimwit of a figure who sings and dances and cavorts to the delight of children. Although the Dutch pride themselves on their tolerance, they now feel that a tradition is under threat, sacrificed to political correctness by those who do not understand it. And poor St. Nicholas, a symbol of kindness and generosity, has become for some a source of division and, occasionally, pretty nasty behavior.

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