As an American who’s been living in the Netherlands for almost 20 years, I’ve noticed a growing conflict between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus. More and more, Christmas seems to be taking over. “Oh no,” say the Dutch purists, “American commercialism is ruining Sinterklaas.” And with the Dutch economy begging for some more consumer spending, this American says; “The more commercialism the better!”
I’ve got two Dutch-American kids. For a while, they were quite happy to celebrate both. Sinterklaas would come on December 5th: that’s when they’d get gifts from Mama & Papa. Santa Claus would come on December 25th: that’s when they’d gifts from my family in America. For a long time, my American family refused to recognize Sinterklaas. Then came the one year when they tried to help us assimilate and do as the Dutch do. They offered to send their gifts for December 5th. On the 6th of December, they called up and said “When does that Sint come again?” And then it was back to Santa.
This year, my kids decided they’re not doing Sinterklaas at all. My youngest is 8, and he figured out that (spoiler alert) Sint isn’t real. As for my daughter, her birthday is on the 2nd of December, and she’s tired of sharing her birthday with “that stupid old Sint”. Also, my kids are picking up on the fact that Zwarte Piet is a little too weird.
There was a time when we had a Zwarte Piet at our house. It was quite by accident.
I know there are some Dutch families who hire actors to give out gifts, dressed up as Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. We don’t do that. I married a Dutch woman who advocates the ‘traditional’ method. We put the gifts in a sack. We give the sack of gifts to the neighbor, and – at the appointed time – he drops off the sack, rings the doorbell and runs away. The kids then open the door and – even though there’s no one there – they scream and cheer “Thank you Sint! Thank you Piet!” This is the most cost-effective special effect ever.
The year the Zwarte Piet came to our house my daughter was about 4. It was the 5th of December, and we’d finished dinner early. It wasn’t even 6 o’clock. I hadn’t given the bag of gifts to my neighbor yet. But then the doorbell rang. My wife looked at me, thinking I’d set up the gifts already. But no. By then, my daughter was opening the door. Who could it be? And there, standing in the doorway was a guy with a black face, big curly hair, a brightly colored red & yellow outfit and holding out a package for my daughter. And the package said: DHL Post. Because he was a Surinamese guy who delivers the post for DHL. And I was looking at my daughter like; “Please don’t say anything”. But I saw the look in her eye. She was convinced. My daughter raised her hand, pointed, and opened her mouth to speak. I tried to stop her, but it was too late. Sure enough, she yelled it: “Zwarte Piet!”
My eyes were locked with the eyes of the black man in my doorway. The American in me was ashamed. “My daughter is racist!” But the Dutch part of me somehow had to play along. What I said was; “That’s right! It is Zwarte Piet! Take his package, and I’ll sign Zwarte Piet’s magic, glowing clipboard.” I felt terrible. I gave the guy 5 euros and shut the door as quickly as I could. I looked at my wife, thinking surely she’d appreciate me sticking up for the Dutch tradition. Her response: “Why did you give away 5 euros?”
But that was long ago. By now, my daughter is old enough to look at Zwarte Piet and wonder “Why do they wear blackface?” Apparently, it’s from coming down the chimney. “That doesn’t make any sense.” No, it doesn’t. So this year, we’re going to be celebrating a jolly, obese man who flies through the air with flying reindeer. Sorry, Sint. Christmas wins.