Interviews: Sinterklaasfest 2019


I’m Tom, I’m from the Netherlands, from Raalte in the Overijssel province. I’m here today and tomorrow to help with Sinterklaas and I join the team that makes that happen and assist with the organisation of games.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete is a Dutch tradition which goes back a long time. It has changed over time, but there has been a Zwarte Piet with Sinterklaas for many years and for a decade there have been more debates about the appearance of Zwarte Piet because he has some racist characteristics. Every year in the Netherlands, there is a debate whether we should continue celebrating this children festival in the way we did in the last 30 to 50 years, or whether we should change the perspective and make sure that everybody can enjoy this festivity.

PP: There have been many suggestions to change the colour of the Petes to make them less black with soot, or change them into rainbow Petes.

Tom: I think that those rainbow Petes look ridiculous, but on the other hand it’s a children festival, and Zwarte Piet is a happy and ridiculous persona, so it could be suitable, but it doesn’t have my preference. I think the best solution is what we call “soot-face” Petes, when they have some black spots on the face because the story is that they come through the chimney to the house to bring the gifts, and chimneys are never clean. So I think that would be a good solution to the debate. The only problem is that, in the Netherlands, a lot of regional activities around Sinterklaas are organised by volunteers who are also volunteers in initiatives for children, so when we don’t paint them entirely the children can recognize them. But I do think it is time to change. We have to make it pleasant for everybody in the country and beyond our borders. Change is inevitable. And I think it’s a good thing that some characteristics like the big earrings have been largely eliminated. We need to go further but it also takes time. I don’t think it is wise to completely abolish this character from one year to the next, deciding that suddenly there are no more root-faced Petes, no more curly hair. I think we need to do it in a way that is understandable for children and agreeable for the adults. That is where the main problem is: the so-called white Dutchies who are clinging on and say “it’s a tradition that we need to keep, we don’t want to change it”. I don’t think that’s a position that can last very long.

I just graduated in history and in the Netherlands the remembrance of the colonial past and their involvement in slavery is not a topic that has been remembered for a long time. Only in the last one or maybe two decades have we started talking about it. And I think that the debate about Zwarte Piet fits into this development, starting to remember what the Dutch nation used to do in these days. People are more and more starting to realise what happened and what we did, and that the golden age of the Netherlands was not a golden age for the rest of the world, but just wealthy people exploiting everyone they could.

I myself celebrated Sinterklaas as a little boy and I still do as a volunteer, and until the discussion started I had never thought: wait a second, what am I doing? Is this racist? Never. There comes a point where you have to say: alright, what are they saying, where you have to take a step back, out of your cultural tradition, and try to see things more objectively. I think that if more people would do that, the discussion would be productive.

The arrival of Sinterklaas in December 2019 in Potsdam, accompanied by "soot-face" Petes (Photo: Lillian Dam Bracia)


My name is Thijs, I am Dutch and I live in Berlin
I am here for the Sinterklaas celebration with the kids.

PP: Have you been aware of the debate around Zwarte Piet?
Definitely. In the Netherlands there is a lot going on. It started after I left the Netherlands so I just read about it in the newspapers but I’m aware of it. I noticed also here in Potsdam the Petes have a different appearance.

PP: So is it much different that in the Netherlands now?
I haven’t seen them in the Netherlands for a while so I cannot really compare, but they used to be all blackfaced and now they just wear a little black on their faces. Also they used to have earrings, red lips, but that is no longer the case. I think that the story now is just: they got black because they go through the chimney.

PP: Do you think there are problematic characteristics in the figure of Zwarte Piet?
Yeah, I guess. When I was a kid I wasn’t aware of that. Zwarte Piet was Zwarte Piet and I didn’t think further. But now since the debate has started I think that yes, there is something problematic. And it’s obvious that people feel offended because of it.

PP: When you were a child did you think he was actually a Black person?
Yes, I thought that Zwarte Piet was respresenting Black people. I grew up in a small town in the Netherlands, and there were not many Black people there, so I didn’t give much of a thought and could not really relate to the perspective of Black people. The story back then was not: they are black because of the chimney, but they are Black because they are Black.

A stand decorated with garlands depicting Black Pete and Sinterklaas (Photo: Lillian Dam Bracia)

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