Culture shock

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  • Today I visited Ghent, a port city in northwest Belgium. I didn’t expect a huge cultural difference from France, however I was quickly confronted with something that I didn’t expect to see.

    As my friends and I walked around the city we came upon a couple of people wearing colorful costumes and their faces painted black. They were handing out candy and talking to people, so naturally I wanted to find out more, and of course, have some of that candy!

    The blackfaced couple explained that they were dressed up as Zwarte Piet, the helper of a mythical character called Sinterklaas. Celebrated across the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of Northern France, Sinterklaas is an old man with white hair and a long beard who visits children to give them candy on the eve of Saint Nicholas day, December 5th.

    With roots in both pagan and Christian tradition, the character of Sinterklaas is based largely on Saint Nicholas. He’s is also the primary source of the popular Christmas icon of Santa Claus. He wears a long red cape over traditional bishop’s clothing and rides a horse named “Slecht Weer Vandaag, which means “Bad Weather Today.” According to legend he also wears a bishops hat, a large ruby ring, and carries a ceremonial shepherd’s staff, along with a large red book full of childrens’ names and addresses.

    On the night of December 5th Sinterklaas is said to ride the rooftops on his horse along with his black faced helpers who listen at chimneys to find out if a child has been well behaved for the past year. Good children are then awarded chocolate letters and candy.

    The origin of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is somewhat ambiguous, but he’s said to be a child released from slavery by Saint Nicholas. For this he was eternally grateful to the Saint and subsequently became his lifelong companion. Of course, there’s no avoiding the fact that, being a slave, he would have been of African decent, hence the blackface.

    A more recent explanation claims that the blackness of the face is not down to skin color, but in fact, due to soot. In that explanation Zwarte Piet is a young chimney sweep from Spain and he’s covered in a permanent layer of soot over his entire body due to his many trips through the chimneys delivering candy to well behaved children. In either case it’s hard to believe that Zwarte Piet’s life would have been a particularly happy existence as a slave or a child put to work as a chimney sweep.

    Nevertheless, despite the racist associations, the character of Zwarte Piet remains popular in the various countries in northern Europe that celebrate Sinterklaas, and to that end it seems that in the run up to December 5th, blackface is just fine in these parts.

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  • One comment on “Culture shock

    1. Great story, I didn’t know the tradition at all. I think the chimney sweep tale is a lot more likely. Nothing to do with Africans. African children would have been expensive and as such looked after, used to show off as a status symbol – so not likely to be freed by St Nicholas.

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