Amsterdam – Zwarte Piet
“What’s going on?” I asked an equally stumped Ryan Somma.
Noting a number of children in the crowd, I came to a conclusion, “IT’S SANTA CLAUS! SANTA CLAUS MUST BE COMING!”
But then a band started across the canal started to play a song with a familiar type of cadence and even though I couldn’t understand the words, they didn’t sound too deep. The crowd, including the children, started to sing along.
“Oh.” My voice flattened, “This must be their version of the Wiggles.”
I used my zoom lens to catch a picture and when I looked at the photograph afterwards on my camera I noticed something odd.
Shortly after that, boats and boats full of people dressed similarly came down the canal.
Ryan and I left Amsterdam still unsure of what exactly we had seen. In our next destination, Bergen op Zoom, we kept encountering the same character. He seemed to be making an appearance in most store fronts.
It took a couple of days before us confused U.S. visitors solved the mystery (Hat Tip, Google Search!). And so, I introduce you to Zwarte Piet. He’s Sinterklaas’s helper! Which means, my first guess at the parade was not that far off.
Zwarte Piet first showed up in a book by Jan Schenkman in 1845.
In the Dutch culture, both Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet spend their off-time in Spain (because it is warm!). Our Santa Claus with his North Pole is pretty much the biggest sucker ever.
After WWII, it was obvious that one Sinterklaas and one Zwarte Piet could not handle all of the holiday workload. They needed more resources. There really could only be one Sinterklaas, so Zwarte Piet multipled. Now there are tons of “Zwarte Pieten” and they remind me a bit of Smurfs. I wonder if that means Zwarte Pieten could also explain the Tragedy of the Commons?
Although I could not tell from the excitement of the parade or by his prominence in advertisements, Zwarte Piet is controversial. I think some of the strategies to make him politically correct are…amusing. Some explain his skin color by pointing out that he has to go up and down chimneys. He is merely covered in soot.
In 2006, “Coloured Petes” were introduced. Instead of black face paint, they donned other colours such as green and purple.
A Green Piet in 2006 (Photo by celesteh)
How did they explain this drastic complexion change? Sinterklaas passed through a rainbow with his boat. And yet, even with that impenetrable premise, the Coloured Petes did not catch on. The very next year, they were back to normal.
Welp, as controversial as Zwarte Piet is, I suppose it could be worse. He could still be into the same antics he was up to in 1885: