St. Nick, Cookies, Presents, Blackface. Must Be the Holidays in Holland. Wait. What?

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November 25, 2012 by MM

One of my favorite things about living abroad is learning new and unexpected things about different cultures (duh). Usually it’s small things, like the way toilets in most of the western world are pretty much the same, but with small differences. (This one flushes with a button on the top! This one has a cord that you pull! etc.) But I’ve recently stumbled upon a VERY unexpected thing about Dutch culture. The holiday of Sinterklaas.

Oh, man. Sinterklaas. So, from the perspective of an American who’s lived in Amsterdam for six months, here is what I have learned about this holiday:

In late November each year, Sinterklaas (St. Nick)

comes to The Netherlands in a boat from Spain with Zwarte Piet (which means “Black Pete”),

rides around town on a white horse, gives presents to children on December 5, and leaves on the morning of December 6. Actually, there are a bunch of Black Petes plural, or Zwarte Pieten. On the day they arive, they throw candy and pepernoten (little spiced cookies) at good children, and legendarily either swatted bad ones with brooms or took them back to Spain in a sack. (Read more about this WTF!!!!! holiday here.) There’s a big parade in Amsterdam every year, and there is no WAY I was going to miss that. So, my friends Sam and Line and I headed down to Dam Square to wait for our minds to be blown. I have four words to sum it up:

Children. dressed. in. blackface.

Being there was… interesting. I was VERY thankful to get to observe this cultural phenomenon. But I was also disturbed. The Dutch people go to great lengths to explain why this tradition isn’t racist, but… it is.

We took this photo before we left to document our impression of it all. In one take, we captured it perfectly:

P.S. Also, this happened.


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