Amsterdam – Zwarte Piet

November 23, 2008 at 8:33 pm 5 comments

On the way to the closed Energetica museum, Ryan Somma and I passed a large crowd congregated around the canals.

“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.

“They’re in…blackface?”

What the—

Shortly after that, boats and boats full of people dressed similarly came down the canal.

The beginning of the parade

One of the boats

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.

Although unnamed at the time, Zwarte Piet’s first appearance

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:

Two grown men (one involved in the church, no less!) preparing to smuggle children out of the country.

More pictures of Zwarte Piet can be found on my Flickr site.

Entry filed under: Amsterdam, Travel, Zwarte Piet.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ideonexus  |  November 24, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    There’s no way to describe how confusing it felt to see all those kids in blackface. I know they don’t mean any harm by it, but boy did it feel so wrong coming from America to see this. : )

  • 2. meekins  |  November 26, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Haha ohh that last image is pure gold! What’s also funny is the father doesn’t look too bothered to be rid of those little brats.

    I just wrote a post on the same topic of Zwarte Piet, so controversial!

  • 3. Vicky  |  November 26, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    @meekins– Hahah, yeah. I did notice that neither parent looked distraught. The mother maybe somewhat concerned, but definitely not distraught. The little girl looks a little pleased that her brothers were leaving.

  • 4. Sex and the NEMO Science Center « TGAW  |  December 11, 2008 at 8:01 am

    […] added to the bill! That was probably the most expensive cultural difference we ran across. Zwarte Piet was definitely the most perplexing cultural difference. The cultural difference that was most […]

  • 5. Fun with Bubble Wrap « TGAW  |  December 16, 2008 at 8:02 am

    […] for the younger attendees. Santa, of course, made an appearance and even without the aid of Zwarte Piet, he managed to hand out […]


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