We’re not in East Vic Park any more

Den Haag (The Netherlands), 18/11/12: Our very excellent hosts in the Netherlands – the Hague / Den Haag more specifically – have been John, Marie and baby Zoe.

One of our hosts

Straight off the boat at the Hook of Holland we hopped on the train bound for Den Haag and were greeted by John at the other end.

I last stayed with a pre-Zoe John and Marie about four years ago (in the same place) but over New Years Eve. It was a good time to be in the relative safety of a first-story apartment. Fireworks are legal on NYE here so every man, woman and child is armed with an Australia Day’s worth of crackers and rockets and turned loose in the streets. It crossed the line dividing celebratory and riotous, with head-level rockets being launched down streets and laneways and bonfires at every major junction. There was a memorable combination of these two ideas when some over-excited reveler dumped a box of rockets into a bonfire. That sure got the people dancing. However, the really scary people weren’t your garden-variety upbeat anarchists, rather the passive aggressive groups that would set fire to public property in back-streets then just stand around it quietly and watch. I didn’t get quite close enough to hear, but I imagined a lot of heavy breathing.

The whole city looked and sounded like a BBC special report from Gaza. The paper the next morning said that this year’s celebrations were far more under control since only about 80 cars got torched.

This time round we are a month-and-a-half early for the fireworks (though there are a few warning shots every evening) but we have been instead been lucky enough to experience another extremely Dutch tradition – Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.

Sinterklaas (centre) in a Zwarte Pieten sandwich

As the story goes, Sinterklaas, the jolly fellow pictured with the snowy white beard and bishops hat, arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat from Spain in mid-November. Children line the streets and sing traditional Sinterklaas carols and sweets are distributed forthwith to the good kiddies.

On the other side of the coin, if you have been a bad child, you are instead spanked with his birch rob, stuffed into a sack and taken to Spain. In the olden days I guess a one-way trip to Spain might not have been so desirable, but as I was shivering in the Dutch mist, watching the parade pass by, all of a sudden sunny Spain doesn’t look so bad.

This is all good family fun but non-Dutch readers might have spotted the elephant in the room here: Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Yep, it’s a blackface act and also an inseparable and important part of Sinterklaas tradition. As we wandered through the town that afternoon, numerous bands of boot-polished up Zwarte Pieten were roaming the streets, entertaining the crowds, playing the fool and up to their usual mischief.

A Zwarte Pieten marching band

A second Zwarte Pieten marching band

My favourite was the Black Peter with a walkie-talkie who was directing traffic – mainly car-loads of other Black Peters. It was like a particular episode of The Goodies.

He’s big business here – Zwarte Pieten are in all the shop windows and all the ads and product packaging. You can buy Zwarte Piet cards, chocolates and even make-up kits (in fact, Nicole did just that). There was a remixed version of “Gangnam Style” with the words “Zwarte Pieten Style”. There’s more boot polish applied to faces in this one day than in all of Hey Hey It’s Saturday and The Footy Show combined. It’s huge and it goes off.

This has been a regular tradition since before blackface started happening in earnest elsewhere in the world and well before it became offensive. If anyone suggests that the tradition is out of step with current sensibilities, they are shouted down in an outcry. There have been attempts to gild the issue by suggesting that Zwarte Piet is sooty from coming down a chimney, but then why the curly wigs and red lipstick?

For my part, when I spotted a young African-Dutch kid dressed as Zwarte Piet, complete with black make-up, I decided that it’s an unmovable tradition here and an bracingly European novelty for foreigners like us. A pretty good start to the tour of the continent.

8 responses

  1. I would hate to get spanked by a “birch Rob”.

    1. It’s a misprint. Should be a “butch Rob”.

      1. Now there’s a christmas character i’d like to see.

    2. Incorrect, you would love it.

  2. There is a similar but almost dead tradition in the SW if England called ‘darkying’. Locals black up and sing ” darky” songs while on a sort of pub crawl. I went to one in Padstow many years ago. From memory, it’s on Boxing Day. I think the PC brigade have put a stop to it now.

  3. Pete,

    It’s probably just as well that you got to see zwarte pieten on your travels as it may not last much longer – check out
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/05/black-pete-race-netherlands

    probably not the first to mention it but your beard seems to be transforming you into Charlton Heston

    1. Re: Charlton. My people find that deeply offensive.

      Not really – actually it’s a form of compliment for me. It’s not the first time I’ve channelled Charlton either. I may start doing it professionally for birthday parties, corporate events, etc.

    2. Oh and good link. Tricky to judge as an outsider since it’s so deeply cultural but I’d guess Zwarte Piet’s days are numbered. Will it still be ok to demonise the Spaniards though?

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