Six to Eight Black Men

*How* many of there are you again?

These are the helpers for the Dutch Sinterklaas. Interestingly, this is where we get our American Santa Claus, and if you find similarities between the two, this is no coincidence. I personally have found that the U.S. is very heavily influenced by the Dutch. One only has to travel to New York (formerly New Amsterdam) to really see this in action.

But back to Sinterklaas. Like Santa, Sint wears a red suit, has helpers, sports a white beard, and makes up a naughty/nice list each year, delivering toys to the nice – usually in their footwear – and teaching the naughty a lesson. But that’s really where the similarities end. Unlike the fat man’s fir-trimmed frock, Sint adorns his thin body with red robes very much resembling the Pope’s and tops his head with a red mitre. This is, of course, due to the fact that Sint spent his pre-Sinterklaas years as the bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. Sint Nicolaas, as he was formerly known, was the patron saint of children.

Sinterklaas is celebrated in the Netherlands on the 5th of December – the eve of the Saint’s naming. This day was kept as a feast day to commemorate the Saint and his kind deeds towards children. In Belgium, however, children celebrate this holiday on the 6th of December. Mostly a holiday for children, Sinterklaas marks the day when they set their shoes before the chimney or radiator, perhaps with a carrot or hay inside for Sint’s horse, and await the delivery of presents.

And then, there are the six to eight black men. Individually, they are known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Get them together and they become Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). Back in the day, these fellows were in charge of whipping naughty children with switches before hoisting them into a canvas sack and carting them off to Spain (which is where Sinterklaas currently resides). My husband remembers being scared to death of the guys! But now, to make the holiday more enjoyable for the children, the Pieten have become swell guys who do acrobatics and tricks, dance and sing, and throw candy and other goodies to the children. Kids nowadays just love the little rascals.

There is, however, much discrepancy over the Sint’s friends. Back when this tradition first started, the Pieten were Sinterklaas’ slaves. This changed in the 50s when they all just became really good friends. The image of a Zwarte Piet may also put many Americans, British, and Canadians ill at ease, due to the fact that they’re not black at all. The Pieten are always played by white people in black face. The story now goes that they get this way from the soot they encounter on their journey down the chimney.

Though this does not seem to phase the Dutch as much as one might think (you will more than likely see at least one or two Afro-Dutch families at any given Sinterklaas celebration), there are a few who are uncertain about how they feel about the tradition and some that are downright offended. There is, at the moment, talk of making them Regenboog Pieten (Rainbow Pieten), with each Piet painted a different color of the rainbow.

This blog entry’s title “Six to Eight Black Men” was taken from the title of a comedic piece by David Sedaris. It is a very funny take on a foreigner’s reaction to a Dutchie’s description of this holiday. Watch the video below. For a transcript of the entire piece, click here.

December 19th marked the final day readers of Clogs and Tulips: An American in Holland were able to vote in the most recent poll: “Zwarte Piet is a…” Votes are all in and tallied and as follows:

59% – a harmless tradition
37% – a racist caricature
4% – not sure
Be sure to participate in the next poll “What do you think of healthcare in the Netherlands.” To vote, just go to the upper right-hand margin of the blog page, select your answer, and click Vote. You may only vote once. The cut off for votes will be January 19, 2010 at 7:26 am Central European time.

For more information on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, here are the following links:

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2 Replies to “Six to Eight Black Men”

  1. Very interesting! I actually didn't know that the Zwarte Pieten were such disciplinarians in the olden days! :o) I always found it a bit remarkable that so few people of non-Dutch origin seem to join in the celebration of Sinterklaas, like parades and the like.
    The video is hilarious! :o)

  2. I myself think it's a great holiday! I forced my husband to take me to an intocht and even got something in my shoe! I think many are stuck on the Zwarte Piet thing which keeps them from really getting into the festivities. David Sedaris certainly does have a great way of putting it though!

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