Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet- Who Do We Think They Are?

Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet- Who Do We Think They Are?


Sinterklaas-en-zijn-Knecht-470x326Cover of book by Jan Schenkman (1850)


The celebration of the Saint Nicholas festival and the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas‘ practices have survived for the last 500 years. Despite the strength of the tradition, disagreement about it has almost become a tradition in itself (Moyer 1984; Hartholt 2013). Months before the 2013 celebrations, heated discussions are flaring up in the (online) media. The topic of debate, once again, is the figure of Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’). The Amsterdam city government received over a twenty written objections against the organized celebration of the arrival of Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten on November 17, an annually celebrated tradition preceding the Sinterklaas festivities of December 5th (BinnenlandsBestuur 2013). In a public hearing on October 17, the council will take the arguments of the protesters into consideration. The main complaint: “Zwarte Piet is racism” (Gario 2012). This standpoint caused an online uproar defending the traditional Sinterklaas feast. The reflection on the Sinterklaas festival and the role of Zwarte Piet is emblematic for a time in which people are collectively accumulating, questioning and preserving personal and national histories and traditions in order to define changing national identities – who are ‘we’ ? Who are Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet? This article briefly explores the origins of the Sinterklaas tradition and the ongoing controversy that lives in its shadow.  

The past has become a hot item in news and media. Over the last decade, popular media has shown an unprecedented interest in history (Lynch 2011, 110). In 2004 the BBC launched a series called Who Do You Think You Are (WDYTYA) on celebrities who trace their ancestry and discover the stories of their families against the backdrop of national history. The show was a huge success and has resulted in multiple spin-offs in other countries (2011, 111). One can perceive the success of the WDYTYA show in the light of a bigger movement where people are investigating personal and collective histories in search of their (national) identities. Helsloot (1996) has pointed out that people become more aware of issues of national identity in times of crisis or rapid economic, social or cultural transformations (263). Every nation has narrations and shared symbols that create a sense of ‘we-ness’, something that makes ‘us’ different from others. Inherited folklore is an important part of this shared experience that creates a sense of identity. When this identity is in doubt or is being re-evaluated, it unavoidably leads to a re-assessment (or ‘re-confirmation’) of shared narrations and traditions. The critical appraisal of the ‘typically Dutch’ Sinterklaas feast takes place against the background of the economic crisis and ongoing debates on multicultural society and ‘Islamization’ of the Netherlands.

It is not the first time that the Sinterklaas festival has stirred up controversy. In 1968 the traditional festival already got criticized by some, like Mrs. Grünbauer, who claimed that the figure of Zwarte Piet implicitly upheld backward ideas about black men being slaves (Helsloot 2009, 79). Their critiques did not receive large-scale support; the majority of Dutch people viewed the Sinterklaas festival as an old tradition that did not have anything to do with the suppression or discrimination of black people. Forty-five years later, the discussion has not intrinsically changed – on the one hand there are still those who maintain the racist essence of Zwarte Piet, on the other hand there still is the mainstream notion that the Sinterklaas festival is an innocent tradition that should not be viewed within the context of the history of slavery.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet have become annual household names for Dutch families, not only in the Netherlands but also in Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. What is the history of these commonly accepted figures before they became part of collective Dutch tradition, leading to present-day controversy? The name ‘Sinterklaas’ refers to the 4th century ‘Saint Nicholas’, or ‘Bishop Nicholas of Myra’. It is unsure if this Nicholas ever really existed, but according to legend he was born in Patara in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in 270, and died on December 6th in 343. Because of the wondrous stories about his work as a bishop, he was declared a saint and the first church was devoted to him in 550 Constantinople. Saint Nicholas became the patron of children, travelers, sailors and nubile maidens. Saint Nicholas and his legend became highly popular throughout western Europe when his relics were transferred from Myra to Bari, in the south of Italy, in 1087 (Hageman 1979; Faber 2008). The oldest building of modern Amsterdam, now called the ‘Old Church’, was also devoted to Saint Nicholas in the fourteenth century. Under the growing influence of Protestantism, the devotion of Saint Nicholas was repressed in the 16th and 17th century. Nevertheless, his legend survived; throughout the centuries there were celebratory markets organized in his name in Amsterdam, and Saint Nicholas managed to become “a kind of popular ‘resistance hero’ of traditional Dutch family life confronted with the rational, no-nonsense regime of the calvinists” (Hofstede 1990, 363; Faber 2008). The 17th century painting ‘The Feast of St Nicholas’ by Jan Steen also elucidates the continuing popularity of this folklore festival, where the good children were given presents and the naughty ones were left with an empty shoe (Rijksmuseum 2013).

258643_962_1228489645609-jan_steen_k‘The Feast of St Nicholas’ painting by Jan Steen (1665-1668)

Despite the strong, enduring tradition of the St Nicholas feast throughout the ages, there were talks of abolishing the festival around the year 1840 (Helsloot 2008,97). The German Christmas tradition was spreading, and pamphlets were issued in 1850 stating that the Christmas tree was more important than Saint Nicholas (2008, 98). The St Nicholas feast was in crisis and needed reform in order for it to survive. It probably is no coincidence that it was this same year, 1850, when Amsterdam teacher Jan Schenkman published a children’s book named Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (‘Sint Nicholas and his Servant’). This book introduced the character of a black helper of Sinterklaas. It was not the first time Sinterklaas had a helper; he was pictured with a white servant before around 1800 (Helsloot 2008, 95; Neutkens 2012). Besides introducing a helper to the Sinterklaas story, Schenkman also introduced a steamboat and even a hot air balloon that allowed Sinterklaas and his helper to take off at the end of the story (Neuskens 2012). He also wrote that Sinterklaas arrived by boat from Spain, not from Myra or Bari. Why the old man came from Spain is unclear; Schenkman might have confused Bari for Spain, he might have been influenced by other stories or he simply chose ‘Spanje’ (Spain) because it suited his rhymes better than Bari (Helsloot 2010).

sche039stni01ill09Image from Jan Schenkman’s book (DBNL)  

Schenkman’s book is called the very first ‘Sinterklaas book’- it reignited the festival’s popularity and greatly determined the symbols and images that are still used today in the celebration of Sinterklaas. The helper, as illustrated by Schenkman, later became known under the name of ‘Zwarte Piet’. Although he wore harem pants in 1850, he was dressed in the 16th century ‘page’-like clothes in the second press of 1885- resembling the image of present-day Zwarte Piet. The imagery of Schenkman’s work lives on every year when hundreds of Dutch people dress up as Sinterklaas in bishop-clothes including the miter, wig and white beard, or as Zwarte Piet including the page clothes, hat and black paint. Zwarte Pieten can be white people who paint themselves black, but this is not necessarily so. The celebrations of Sinterklaas in Curaçao (Kingdom of the Netherlands) also exemplify that black people use black paint to dress up as Zwarte Piet (Drayer 2013).

DSC_0170-300x199Sinterklaas celebrations in Curaçao (Drayer 2013)

Since the first depiction of ‘Zwarte Piet’ in Schenkman’s 1850 children’s book, different imageries and texts are likely to have intervened with each other and ultimately resulted in the present-day form of the St Nicholas festival (Hoegaerts 2009, 45). Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet have become dramatis personae who go through all kinds of adventures every year- their stories are publicly told through TV series, films, schoolplays, books and songs, and privately enacted within family households. In the recurring controversy within the Netherlands surrounding the figure of Zwarte Piet, protesters maintain that his imagery is racist and that it refers to slavery. This leads one back to Schenkman, the ‘spiritual father’ of Zwarte Piet: why did Schenkman depict Zwarte Piet the way he did? Was Zwarte Piet linked with slavery?

A direct answer to the last question is ‘no’. Schenkman has not directly linked Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas with slavery, nor is it mentioned anywhere that Zwarte Piet is a slave (Helsloot 2008, 95). Although the Dutch were involved in slavery through the VOC and WIC since the 16th century until official abolishment in 1863, the practice or system of owning slaves was officially forbidden on actual Dutch soil throughout these times (Boerhout et al 2012). The aforementioned, and the fact that Zwarte Piet is depicted wearing shoes, makes it highly probable that Zwarte Piet as created by Schenkman was a free man (2008, 95). The way in which Zwarte Piet is pictured, including his costume and tights, might be inspired by the tradition of 17th and 18th century paintings of Dutch men with black servants, as was pointed out by art historian Eugenie Boer in 1993 (Helsloot 2012, 9). Why did Schenkman depict Zwarte Piet this way? Although scholars have speculated where he might have gotten his inspirations, there are no documents that explain Schenkman’s motives for the inclusion of a black man, or why he was dressed the way he was. Did he purposely emphasize the master/servant relationship through the depiction of a white Sinterklaas and a black servant? Was the servant modelled on someone he knew? Was he inspired by the knights and servants from ‘Ivanhoe’, as argued by Van Benthem (Helsloot 2012b)? Or was the black servant introduced to add some fashionable ‘Oriental’ spice to the Sinterklaas legend (Van Benthem 2012)? Existing theories remain solely based on speculation.

Considering what is already known about the origins of the St Nicholas feast, it seems that the controversy surrounding Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet actually is a problem of the present- not a problem of the past. The character of Zwarte Piet in itself is not ‘racism’, nor was it ever demonstrated that Schenkman intended it to be this way. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet as created in the 1850 Schenkman book were two imagined dramatic characters that were called to life in order to reignite a dying St Nicholas tradition. The evolving controversies arise from disagreements about what Dutch people collectively think of the Sinterklaas festival and how they perceive the roles of Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas in the present. There is a discrepancy in how Dutch people collectively ‘imagine’ Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas; instead of creating social harmony, the understanding of this St Nicholas tradition is causing separation. Zwarte Piet is an image that leads to disagreement because he gets ‘re-imagined’ amongst different societal groups, who have different perspectives on past and present. The problem entirely lies within who we think Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are; some imagine them as a colonial representation of unbalanced racial power relations that should be left in the past, others imagine them as intrinsic characters to Dutch national tradition that need to be preserved for the future.

One could say that the Sinterklaas feast is again in crisis, as it was in the 1840s, before Zwarte Piet entered the stage. The future of St Nicholas’s holds multiple possible scenarios. There might be a 21st century ‘Schenkman’ who introduces such a popular new character to the Sinterklaas feast that Zwarte Piet will slowly fade to the background of collective memory. There might be a slow de-popularization of the festival and it will eventually burn out altogether. The traditional disagreements surrounding the Sinterklaas feast might perpetually continue and serve as a way for the people to ‘agree to disagree’. Or, perhaps, Zwarte Piet, in the tradition of St Nicholas himself, becomes a kind of popular ‘resistance hero’ of the Dutch confronted with the multilayered, multicultural and multifocal complexities of modern society. He might survive for 500 years to come.

Ultimately, the question of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and how ‘we’ in the Netherlands think of them, reflects back on our own (national) identity/identities and history/histories. To the ones who have made up their minds on who Zwarte Piet is and what he conveys: who do you think you are? These questions will keep us busy for a long time to come. One comfort – at least we are sticking to tradition.



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Boerhout, Laura, Mariska Jung and Paul Marcinkowski. 2012. “Zwarte Piet, A Bitter Treat? Racial Issues in the Netherlands and the US.” Humanity in Action.  Available online at:

Drayer, Dick. 2013. “En Natuurlijk Zwarte Piet.” NOS (Oct 9). (Accessed October 14, 2013).

Faber, Paul. 2008. “De Geschiedenis van Sint-Nicholaas.” Kennis Link (4 dec). (Accessed October 12, 2013).

Gario, Quinsy. 2012. Zwarte Piet is Racisme (website). (Accessed October 12, 2013).

Hageman, Howard G. 1979. “Review of Jones, Charles W. Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bali and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend.” Theology Today: 461-463.

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—. 2008. “De ambivalente boodschap van de eerste ‘Zwarte Piet’ (1850)”. In E. Doelman and J. Helsloot (ed.). De kleine Olympus. Over enkele figuren uit de alledaagse mythologie, 93-117. Amsterdam : KNAW Press. Available online at:

—. 1996. “Sinterklaas en de Komst van de Kerstman: Decemberfeesten in Nederland tussen Eigen en Vreemd.” Volkskundig Bulletin 22: 262-298.

Hoegaerts, Josephine. 2009. “Domestic Heroes: Saint Nicholas and the Catholic Family Father in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality 3 (1): 41-63.

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Moyer, David S. “Sinterklaas in Victoria: St. Nicolaas as a Symbol of Dutch Ethnicity.” Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies 5.2 (1984): 24-30.

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9 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Sander says:

    Great piece! As an expat I must be prepared to explain Dutch traditions to incredulous foreigners and this is very helpful indeed. I quite enjoyed Sinterklaas and still do, despite the fact that Zwarte Piet, and to some extent De Sint himself, have not been part of my Sinterklaas celebrations for at least ten years. So I would say get Sinterklaas a servant/employee who is more up to date (though some would say it is racism only if Sinterklaas would not employ Zwarte Piet…), or give the entire holiday a make over. Just don’t use racism as an excuse to lose the entire tradition. ‘World culture’ is uniform enough as it is. It would be sad if a ‘Dutch’ Sinterklaas was removed only for the Coca Cola Santa Claus to take his spot in the centre of attention.

  2. Manya Koetse says:

    Thanks Sander! It was actually your question about St Nicholas that got me interested in the first place 🙂

  3. Ciara says:

    Great piece Manya!

  4. Sandra says:

    Great article, it’s nice to read a more objective approach than what is heard the last week. To me as a modern, dutch woman it seems almost impossible that someone is offended to the modern Zwarte Piet.
    Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet and the other ‘Pieten’ have their songs, their own movies and series every year now in the weeks before December 5th. These stories are loved by the children and are depicting Zwarte Pieten as humans, with their good and bad sides. The color is non-existant.
    Actually I dare say, Zwarte Pieten are the most positive rolemodels for coloured people that I know of! They are clever, funny, creative, helpful, silly, musical naughty, sportive and like every one in Holland, they respect Sinterklaas because he stands for the elderly, the wise. Next to that they always come with dancing, fanfares and they shower us with gifts. So far, I see absolutely no problem why not embrace this long, long tradition that gives every child, small or big, a smile in december!
    It’s a pity for the individual coloured person that felt bad throughout his childhood, but I heard a lot of opinions of other coloured people, saying that they have no problem at all with Zwarte Piet.
    Let’s give this tradition back to the children please.

    • Wybe says:

      Children really have no idea whatever tradition you feed them…i do not think that is a valid argument. But what example are you setting them?

      This tradition has changed a lot over the many centuries, it is in fact even much older than 500 years. Even before St. nicolas was actually born! This tradition has been christened. The tradition has changed a lot over the centuries. But it seems that now that the Netherlands have less culturally homogenous, some white people fear of losing their identity if we let traditions change with the culture. I believe these people feel this fear genuinly and that there might be a lack of comprehension among black people about this fear. These white people are sticking desperately to a tradition that has changed very little since 1850. You can try to give it a positive swing, it still comes down to that a stereotypical black person with thick lips and earrings is the servant of a white old man.
      I believe that black people genuinly feel that black Pete is a continuation of a stigma that some of them are confronted with on a daily basis. Because there is unfortunately racism on a daily basis in the Netherlands. This s something that white Dutch people seem to have a lack of comprehension of.
      I feel it is good that we are having this discussion. It has changed my opinion, it took a long time, but i have switched camps.

  5. Manya Koetse says:

    Thank you for your comment Sandra!

  6. Jan says:

    This duscussion is getting big when “sinterklaas’s” arrival date aproaches.

  7. c13fwagt says:

    role model for all people***

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