Sunday, December 20, 2015

I finally got these pics developed: Sinterklaas in town

So sorry for being so terribly late with this post and I know it is a bit inappropriate to write about Sinterklaas while sitting in front of my Christmas tree, but I only just got these pictures that I took with a disposable camera, developed. The limited amount of pictures of that camera was quickly exceeded, so I continued taking pictures with my good old Canon (pictures below).

So, to everyone who's not from the Netherlands, let's get some things straight: our Sinterklaas-holiday does not equal Christmas. For one, Sinterklaas is celebrated on the 5th of December, while we celebrate Christmas on the 25th and 26th. Secondly, on the 5th we celebrate the birthday of an old saint called Saint Nicholas, or rather, "Sinterklaas", while on Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and to this holiday the Americans added a fat old man called Santa Claus who was based on the Dutch Sinterklaas, in other words: Sinterklaas is the original Santa Claus. Furthermore, Sinterklaas is particularly a children's holiday, unlike Christmas.

We do not know for sure if Saint Nicholas ever was an existing human being walking on this planet, or just a made-up character that has somehow settles itself as one of the most typical Dutch traditions, but this is what my parents used to teach me about the history of the Sinterklaas holiday: Nicholas was a Christian saint, and a very good person, who helped poor kids and gave them gifts. And we celebrate his birthday because he was such a good person who needs to be remember. This is a very short and limited description, because there are a thousand of different stories about his history, and we do not know which one is most truthful.
What is more important, is what kids believe about Sinterklaas nowadays: Sinterklaas lives in Spain, and every year a couple of days before his birthday, he comes down to the Netherlands, because he is so nice that he does not wish to receive any presents for his birthday, but rather hands out all kinds of gifts to the children in the Netherlands. So he arrives in the Netherlands on his ship, and then in the few weeks before the 5th, kids put their shoe in front of the chimney, put a carrot in it for Sinterklaas's white horse, along with a wish list, and sing special Sinterklaas songs, hoping that the next morning there will be a small gift or some candy in their shoe (only if they have been good!). These presents are delivered by Sinterklaas's loyal helpers, his "Black Petes", who are very funny, friendly and acrobatic, and who come into the house down the chimney, while Sinterklaas is waiting on his horse on the roof. It may all sound a bit silly but this is makes total sense to kids. Then, on the 5th of December, Sinterklaas leaves a big bag filled with gifts, and the day after he's on his way back to Spain, preparing for the following year.
Older kids and adults have other traditions: since they don't believe Sinterklaas is an existing figure anymore, they celebrate this day a bit different: after drawing names a while in advance, everyone writes a poem to the assigned person, buys them a small gift and sometimes they also make them a craft (called a "surprise"), in which the gift is hidden.

Both the way kids celebrate his birthday and the way others celebrate it, is very fun and is an important part in Dutch traditions. This is why I wanted to show my Norwegian buddy (an exchange student in my school who I've met through a buddy project) this tradition, so I decided to take her to the first important event: the arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands (we went to the event in our hometown Nijmegen).
At first I was a bit worried, because lately the helpers of Sinterklaas, "Black Petes", have been a very controversial topic. Especially on social media, people have argued for and against them. The people who are against the "Black Petes" argue that it's 'discrimination': his look (black curly hair, red lips, golden earrings, clothing, black skin color) resembles African slaves from the 16th century very much, and this might remind some people of this terrible age and in that way offend them, as if Black Petes promote slavery. - Like many things in history, Black Petes may have been based on the african slaves indeed, but people who argue in favor of the Black Petes say that according to the history of Sinerklaas, this old saint freed the African slaves and gave them a job as his helpers, and along with this job came an independent and autonomous status for the former slaves. This way, Sinterklaas can be seen as a symbol against racism. Others say Black Petes are black because they go through the chimney to deliver the gifts.

In my opinion, what's racism is that people against Black Petes basically tell this (fictive) character that he can't be black. Since when is telling someone he can't be black not racism?
Also I don't think people should take Black Petes so serious: if we link Black Petes to something in history that they are based on, then why are we not questioning Saint Nicholas himself? His character was based on an old saint, and nowadays we all know what saints in past times used to do to little kids in church - and now we are characterizing a saint as a "children's friend". Some people might feel that something that reminds them of slavery is bad, so is pedophilia.
Plus, in their character play, Sinterklaas is in charge, is that also bad because he happens to be a white man so it seems as if white people think they rule over blacks? So what if we change his skin color to black? We would face the exact same problem. People overthink skin colors too much. They need to have some skin color, and the skin color does not say anything about all other persons with the same skin color.
Some people with black skin color say "I feel offended when people say you look like Black Pete". Does that mean that because some red haired people feel offended when people tell them they look like Pippi Longstocking, we should ban Pippi Longstocking as well?
I also think it is a stupid solution to have "rainbow Petes", basically Petes with all different kind of skin colors (including irrealistic skin colors like purple and green), they're not clowns or Barbapapa characters, they are their own unique character, and, most of all, for kids it is important there is an easy way to identify a character (if we are going to have a variety of "Petes", making sure no one gets offended, the Petes will differ as much from each other as all people in the world do from one another, in other words: they won't be a fictional character anymore, but regular human beings handing out candy to kids, and what's the point of that?) and I think we should not try and change them, but instead treasure our traditions, educate kids about slavery (instead of denying it ever took place) and racism, and focus on real problems in the world (like did we ever reach the millennium goals, and I thought IS was going around killing people, and talking about discrimination, I think there are many points of improvement in that field when we consider some people's attitude against refugees - Get Real!).

After all, Sinterklaas is a children's holiday, and for that purpose, Black Pete is (nowadays) always characterized in a positive way, making him almost more a children's friend than their old man Nicholas is - and children love him (I know some kids are scared of him because of his black skin but maybe their parents should teach them black people are not scary, plus when I was little, the witch in Disney's Sleeping Beauty was freaking me out so let's not focus on some children's fear illusions - not to mention that when Sinterklaas arrived on his boat, many more children were screaming for their idol "Black Pete" than for the guy who it is all about). I also love Black Pete. And I have never ever questioned him or his skin color, I have grown up believing it was no more than normal. Which it is. By making him subject of controversy, it makes it seem as if he is not normal, as if the way he looks is not normal. I think the whole discussion is stupid and we need to sort out our priorities.

I found it somewhat hard to express myself clearly in English, but I hope that my point is clear. I found an article that compares arguments for and against Black Petes - if you are interested, click here (Dutch only). I feel like it's sad that a holiday that so many people enjoy so much has to suffer because some people feel 'offended'. Are you dying? Is Black Pete taking your jobs?

I feel very proud of my own city Nijmegen for the event, because the event was a hundred percent traditional, so that my Norwegian buddy could experience what is is really like. She did not think Black Petes were related to racism in any way, although she felt it was weird how a hundred something people were dressed up in the exact same way and were all sitting on a boat waving. When she mentioned that I realized that is a pretty crazy thing. But so are many things. And that was such a moment on which I felt crazily patriotic: our crazy traditions.... The way they had colored my childhood! It was, and still is, so very special.

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