I just saw the news that Sinterklaas came to Hong Kong and, like everywhere in the world now, caused much controversy. Sinterklaas, Belgian’s and Dutch’ Santa Claus is surrounded by his servants, white people painted black in Moor’s clothes with a black wig.
I am from Belgium and I grew up with this. I never thought much of it, although when I tell this to all expats who don’t know this tradition, they are shocked and find it racist beyond means. Everyone outside of the Netherlands and Belgium think that we should abandon this tradition. But… it is our tradition. I want my children to know Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. A Sinterklaas without his helpers are not the same. It would be taking the reindeers from Santa Claus.
I know that it is because it is people painted in black paint, but I never thought much of it. These servants were there to take the bad children with them. I didn’t grow up being afraid of black people (even though, I was not exposed to black people. I never saw a ‘real’ black person until I was a teenager). But, even though these Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) were always teasing to take you away because you might have been naughty, I was more afraid of this big white man with his long white beard as he had a book in where it was written on how bad and how many times I had been bad throughout the year.
This is the tradition: Sinterklaas (St Nicolas) is coming on 6 December (in Belgium) and on 5 December (in Holland). He comes by ship from Spain together with his servants. He goes through the chimney and gives toys, chocolate and biscuits to the children. He had a white horse to carry all the toys. So, we would put a carrot and some sugar in our shoes and put it in front of the chimney for the horse. The morning of 6 December, we would go downstairs and the living room was full of toys, chocolate and biscuits, sometimes hidden, so we had to look behind the sofa and so on.
It is a beautiful tradition. I remember all the stories around it. We have hundreds of songs to sing around that festival. We really believed everything of it, until the age of 8 and our parents told us that they bought the toys and sweets. Every school, every shopping mall, every company had their Sinterklaas. And even, when I worked at a company, the morning of the December 6, we would have sweets lying on our desk (if you had a generous boss). The whole of Belgium and the Netherlands are very excited and have much fun during that time. We don’t really have a Santa Claus, which is an American tradition that now came to Belgium as well, like Halloween.
So, don’t take away local traditions, we are being Americanized too much already!