It’s the day after the Netherland’s beloved tradition. I was invited to participate in a ‘traditional’ Sinterklaas celebration on December 5th, the eve before the celebration of Saint Nicholas the patron saint of children. The friend who invited me, knows my stance that “Zwarte Piet is Racisme”, and I believe she shares the same views to some extent, yet I know she is also conflicted as she grew up loving this Dutch tradition. She invited me, because she wanted me to experience the ‘personal side’ of the celebration that happens away from the glare of the media, blogs, and public opinion, but among family and close friends. She assured me it would be ‘devoid’ of “Zwarte Piet” (ZP) although, his name would come up as part of the songs they sing during the festivities.
I accepted the invitation. I had some reservations of what I could expect, but, I believed that my friend had good intentions in wanting to share a valued and treasured part of her life experience, perhaps hoping to prove to me that “The Dutch who celebrate Sinterklaas are not racists”. I decided to set aside my ‘perceptions’ and fully engage in the experience. I bought a gift, which I was told should be ‘a joke in nature’ and I wrote a poem, also that should make some funny statement about the person you’re giving it to. I went to her house early as we agreed to go together to the party. I continued to get into the experience as we drank wine while we put the finishing touches on our respective gifts. When we arrived at the hosts’ home, I was warmly greeted. Not surprisingly, I was the only Black person at the party. I had a momentary, Sidney Poitier’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” moment, as everyone seemed to know that a ‘special guest’ was attending their sacred annual tradition. Before arriving at my friend’s house, I said to her, “I am not going to your party as a ‘ZP is Racisme activist’, just as your friend and guest,” to which she agreed.
I was immediately struck by a large piece of original art of a Black woman holding her baby; the woman and child had no face, i.e., their facial features were erased. There was a time I may have seen this type of ‘abstract’ art as beautiful, but last night I found it disturbing to look at. Nevertheless, I quickly got into the spirit of the evening. Everyone was very festive. Guests of all ages sang in unison one Sinterklaas song after another, we ate from a delicious pot of a hearty soup. I don’t know if it was a ‘traditional’ Dutch soup, but it was very good. Cider, wine, beer and champagne flowed; throughout the living room lay bowls of ‘pepernoten’ (pepper nuts), cookies and other sweet confections; soon followed a bowl of oranges, another part of the tradition, I was told. There were stacks of gifts covered up on the floor that looked hand-made. The room was filled with anticipation of opening the presents and reading poems.
Then suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door. Everyone seemed startled, including me. The host and a few guests went to see whom it was; a commotion began when they opened the door. One of the guests, said to me, “You should go see this…” I went to the door and there was a huge bag, ‘left by Sinterklaas’. It took three people to bring it into the living room. The host opened the bag and out pops… Zwarte Piet!! Screams and laughter ensued as it turns out it was a family member. I was surprised, given the assurance I would not be ‘surprised’. Remembering my declaration, I was determined not to ‘react’ to this unwanted encounter. I’m not sure what went through my mind at that moment, but I remember praying for strength to handle whatever was to come after. I was fixated on him, trying to see beyond his ‘black mask’ to understand this phenomenon. I don’t think I succeeded. I sensed ‘ZP’ was a little uncomfortable with my staring at him. He went to wash off the make up soon after he arrived. I must admit I was glad when all traces of him were gone.
The moment of ZP’s arrival quickly passed and the gift exchange started. This Dutch tradition is very similar to what we celebrate in the U.S. called, “secret Santa” or “Kris Kringle”. The names of participants are placed in a hat, (in this case a more elaborate website is used) and participants ‘draw’ the name of a person for whom to buy a gift. Along with name submission, each participant may also submit a short wish list of items from which the gift-giver can choose. Presents are then exchanged anonymously. There were also intermittent exchanges of ‘chocolate letters’ covered with stick versions of ZP.
I was very impressed by how creative the gifts were. They went through great efforts to create gifts that were not only imaginative, but also very specific to the likes and personalities of the recipients. Then, the host handed me a gift…with a note on it that I would have to read. I swallowed so loud, I’m sure others could hear me. Then I looked up into their eyes as they looked back at me searching for the sign of my approval, which perhaps they would receive by me reading the note that said, “Jennifer, read loud and clear: ‘Zwarte Piet, wie? Zwarte Piet Nee, die keenen we heir niet?’” that followed with instructions, “Turn over…run it through Google translate..” The translation said, “Black Peter, black Pete is entirely obsolete, we love the holy bloke who gives presents with a joke!” The gift was a “chocolate letter ‘J'”. Harmless enough, it was all in the spirit of fun.
Then it was my friend’s turn to read the poem I had written for her and to open my gift. Since I wasn’t completely clear beforehand how the activity went, I had bought a gift and wrote the poem with her in mind. She read the poem beautifully, which I personalized as a take off from, “T’was the Night Before Christmas…” I crossed my fingers hoping it would be as funny when she read it, as it was when I wrote it. She read the last line, “Happy Sinterklaas to all and to all a good night!” Clap..clap…clap!! I received a rousing ovation and lots of laughs! Then she opened her gift and it was, a candy figurine you see in the image of a “Black Sinterklaas and white Pete”, again the cheers rang out. Whew, I was so glad it was a hit! I just smiled, when someone leaned over and asked me, “Where did you find it?”
Unfortunately, I had to leave before the celebration was over to catch the last train home. So, my friend gave me her gift and her poem that was not so much of a joke, but in her way expressed her sentiments about our ‘parallel journey’. I said my good byes and thanked everyone for their hospitality. Just before I left the host handed me a printout of an article from the Volkskrant, “Besmeur de Zwarte Piet-traditie en je hebt het Nederlandse volk op je dak”. The translation didn’t really make sense, but I gathered that it is a defense for Zwarte Piet. Until that moment, I was feeling hopeful that in some small way, even if it was just for an evening our, ‘parallel paths’ had crossed, that we could set aside our perceptions and understandings of ‘each other’ to meet and just enjoy one another. I left wondering did we really gain a better understand of each other, or did we just masquerade our inner most beliefs so we could ‘get through it? Does a part of us all have to ‘disappear’, or be ‘erased’ in order for ‘others’ to feel more comfortable with the ‘isms’ that so easily divide us?
From my point of view, I still believe the image, “ZP is Racisme”, even though I do not think the families I spent the evening with intend to be racists, no one in their right mind does. I honestly don’t think they saw ‘me’ when they sang of ZP or when he jumped out of the bag. However, there is something ‘disembodying’ about this creature that was created during a particular time in history that was rooted in racism. That history cannot just be erased, because you love the ‘tradition’. My friend in her poem let me know she doesn’t care what color ‘Piet’ is, just that he will change so we can all enjoy this wonderful celebration.
I don’t know that we ‘changed’ anything last night about our preconceived perceptions and beliefs, but in our own respective ways we tried. It took me a long time to get ‘home’; but I was relieved when I got there…