Tuesday, December 12, 2006

the 411 on santa claus

who is this santa claus character who invades our culture every year at this time?

our modern day santa claus is derived from saint nicholas, bishop of myra in the fourth century.
st. nicholas was known for saving his people from famine and sparing the lives of those falsely accused. he was said to have given away his inheritance to those in need. st. nicholas is knows as the patron of many different groups of people --children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans, laborers, travelers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and even thieves and murderers. sounds like a good guy, right?

st. nicholas inspired the mythical figure of sinterklaas, the subject of a major celebration in the
netherlands, belgium and germany. the dutch brought this tradition to the settlers of new amsterdam (later renamed new york), who misprounced "sinterklaas" and that's how we got our american "santa claus".

unfortunately, sinterklaas is not as likeable a guy as st. nicholas seemed to be. sinterklaas has a servant (or sometimes multiple servants) called "zwarte piet," or black pete. one explanation is that during the middle ages, zwarte piet was a name for the devil. having triumphed over evil, it was said that on st. nicholas' eve, the devil was shackled and made sinterklaas's slave. sinterklaas is said to have come from spain and his helper eventually became seen as a dark-skinned Moor. wikipedia tells us: "Until the second half of the 20th century, [sinterklaas's] helper was not too bright, in line with the old colonial traditions." so we've got a devil turned into a black slave and/or a stupid black-skinned helper who the legend goes will stuff bad children into a bag and bring them to spain. racism anyone?

in the modern day celebration in Netherlands, white people dress up in black face, wear afro wigs, and wear bright red lipstick and march around throwing candy to children. some of these "zwarte piet" act dumb and speak garbled Dutch. there is a thriving market for zwarte piet products, many incredibly offensive in their depiction of black people. (see picture in this post and more to come in the comments.)

i think it's good to know where the traditions we are celebrating come from. i hope that if we are going to continue to celebrate the myth of santa claus (and feed the myth to our children),
we can find a way to celebrate the *original* inspiration for santa claus, st. nicholas -- who gave away his wealth to the poor, defended the rights of those falsely accused, and generally threw his lot with those most despised by society.

for more info on sinterklaas and the debate about zwarte piet, see this christian science monitor article, or this wikipedia entry.


g love and her special sauce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
g love and her special sauce said...

other images of zwarte piet...



Anonymous said...


I got curious about the whole merchandise piece of the black peters, and I found this link. Sure enough! And not just costumes, but dolls and other kinds of kitschy racist paraphernalia as well.

As I like to tell g love (and her special sauce) regularly, I became as intimately acquainted with the zwarte piet (we called them "black peters") as I ever care to be when I lived in Aruba as a kid. Sinter Klaus would arrive in his tall, bishop-like hat and sit in the courtyard, but it was no pleasant gift-giving occasion. Ringing the courtyard were a number of black-faced adults in jester costumes weilding child-sized bags. A lump of coal would have been far preferable to the anxiety-producing presence of these characters.

I could say all my neuroses started there, or paint it as my moment of innocence lost, island utopia drowned in vestiges of Dutch colonialism (adopted by expats working for an American oil company). But really what I think about now, looking back on it, is: who were those people? They were probably neighbors and friends of my parents. Everybody knew everybody there. So what was going through their minds when they put on the blackface and the black gloves and picked up the big child-sized burlap bags? And what did our friends and neighbors from India, South America, and Jamaica think of the display? What did my parents think of it? I think I'll ask them when I go home.

Anonymous said...