Sinterklaas: A Brit’s perspective
13 December 2016 - By Robyn Johnston, Master's student Persuasive Communication: 'From speaking to many of my Dutch friends about this topic, I’m now able to formulate a more informed opinion regarding this December custom.'
My passion for the Christmas season runs deep. Perhaps it derives from nearly sharing Jesus’s birthday or being named after a festive bird; I love everything about Christmas. I revel in the fact that Christmas day is near enough identical to when I was about 12 years old (I still wake to a full stocking on Christmas morn that somehow magically swelled overnight). My sisters are even bigger stickers for tradition than me, as I found myself being castigated one year for merely attempting to alter the order of rooms we enter when swapping our presents. So I know just how important traditions can be and how comforting these reminders of childhood are.
This concept has slightly helped me to understand one of the most, in my opinion, shocking traditions of the Netherlands: Zwarte Piet. My very first encounter with this character was my very first visit to Amsterdam about five years ago. As soon as I stepped off the train from Schipol, a big group of black-faced people surrounded me and I was genuinely confused and unnerved. To me they looked like they belonged in a Minstrel band, a concept that was alive and kicking in the UK until the late 70s. These consisted of white people ‘black-facing’ and typically lampooned black people as dim-witted, buffoonish, musical and happy-go-lucky. So I was pretty shocked at the sight of these people in broad daylight in what I had been told was a liberal, progressive and tolerant country.
Fortunately now I have some more insight than when I was first confronted with this Dutch tradition. From speaking to many of my Dutch friends about this topic, I’m now able to formulate a more informed opinion regarding this December custom. ‘Brain-washed by culture’ was a rather apt and eloquent way one them described the ongoing practice. She told me how this character is held in the hearts of children and stays there from youth till adulthood with these warm associations never ceasing. Therefore, if I had been born in the Netherlands with the same innate passion for Christmas I could fall victim to defending this black-facing tradition. I have also come to learn that cultural traditions are extremely significant. Wars have been waged in the face of tradition and culture. But I believe people need to take stock and realize where this caricature has emerged from and what a genuinely progressive society needs to do to tackle this issue.
By no means is Britain the saint in terms of depicting black people in a stereotypical or offensive manner. My favourite brand of marmalade as a child was Robertson’s ‘golden shred’ which I would slather on my toast before and after school most days. The brand mascot was ‘Golly’ which was blatantly derived from ‘golliwog’. With his natty red bow tie and flowing blue jacket, the minstrel doll was either an innocent nurseryland character or a grossly offensive racial slur. When he was ‘killed off’, my 9 year old self was genuinely hurt and sad that I would no longer see his maniacal smiling face during my morning ritual. It also sparked a watershed moment that brought home to advertisers that any creation with even the hint of a racial undertone was fundamentally unacceptable in Britain. I’m hoping that this watershed moment will come soon to the Sinterklaas holiday. But, in the meantime lest we not forget the true meaning of Christmas: drinking Baileys non-stop by an open fire for no less than 5 days.
Robyn Johnston (26) is currently enrolled in the Master’s programme in Communication Science (track Persuasive Communication). Her expected year of graduation is 2017.