Continuing to celebrate
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Dec 30, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Continuing to celebrate

Stratford Gazette

Re: Blackface never okay, editorial, Dec. 12

I find it quite strange and upsetting that the Stratford Gazette feels it needs to mingle into the domestic affairs of the Netherlands.

First, a few facts about the St. Nicolaas celebration. It has nothing to do with Christmas and St. Nicolaas is not related in any way to Santa Claus. St. Nicolaas is celebrated on December 5, the date of St. Nicolaas’s birthday.  Christmas is celebrated on December 25 in the Netherlands, just as in much of the world.

I was born and brought up in Amsterdam and I remember as a child the excitement of the arrival of St. Nicolaas from Spain with his two helpers Zwarte Piets. There are many stories of how the tradition started. There are paintings from the 15th century that indicate it was already being celebrated then. One story tells that St. Nicolaas bought a slave his freedom and made him his companion and he then helped St. Nicolaas giving presents to the poor children.

Thus the beginning of Zwarte Piet. I remember leaving my shoe in front of the fireplace and in the morning finding candies or a small present that had been thrown down the chimney by Zwarte Piet. (There never was, and there isn’t now any suggestion that Zwarte Piet came down the chimney himself!)

There has been some opposition to the characterization of Zwarte Piet but I believe this has been greatly exaggerated. There has not been raging debates pro or con, no riots, and the vast majority of Dutch people are quite happy with the current  situation. This is a fun time for children and not a time to argue over the merits or otherwise of blackfaces.

My husband and I have just returned from the Netherlands where we were a part of the thousands watching the St. Nicolaas parade in Amsterdam. One difference this year, perhaps to counter the few objections, was the presence of not one or two, but several hundred Zwarte Piets. It was a wonderful sight to see so many happy children welcoming St. Nicolaas with their songs. This was just one of hundreds of St. Nicolaas parades across the Netherlands, all with their Zwarte Piets.

It is interesting to note that old Dutch colonies such as Curacao, since their independence, still celebrate St. Nicolaas. They have to paint a black person white to play St. Nicolaas and there are many black people who find it a great honour to play Zwarte Piet!

I would suggest that North America has far more important things, both socially and racially, to worry about than blackface in the Netherlands. I don’t believe the Dutch are at all worried about the views of a few far-out politically correct North Americans and they will continue to celebrate and enjoy St. Nicolaas as they have for centuries.

Leonora Hopkins    


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