Monday, December 22, 2014

Blogmas Day 17: Winter in My Family/ Culture

The winter time is always a fraught time for me.  My parents come from two different cultural traditions and neither was ever insistent on my accepting one tradition over the other.  So, come December, I don’t have a holiday tradition that feels 100% my own.  Instead, I celebrate an amalgam of winter festivals—Sinterklaas, Hanukkah, [Christ]mas, Boxing Day—in an effort to negotiate my cultural intersections. 

For my American audience, especially my high school students, Sinterklaas is the holiday topic that is raises the most questions.  I thought I would focus this post on the holiday.  

Sinterklaas (December 5) is a holiday in the Netherlands and Belgium where St. Nicholas visits houses and brings good children gifts and sweets.  Depending on where your family is from, Sinterklaas has a progressive discipline plan for ne’er do wells than can either be mildly frightening to straight-up terrifying. 

My maternal family is from the Dutch provinces of North and South Holland and I’ve always been told that the first year you misbehave Sinterklaas won’t give you any gifts and will only leave you a lump of coal as a warning.  The next year, if you still haven’t gotten your act together, Sinterklaas will either pull you out of bed and beat you up or pretend to beat you up in an effort to scare you straight.  Sometimes, Sinterklaas’s sidekick (or sidekicks), Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten—plural— if you live in a region where Sinter has an entourage) will do the big guy’s dirty work.  For those little sociopaths who are horrible three years in a row, Sinter and Piet will beat you up, shove you in their magic sack, and drag you back to their castle in Spain where you will have to do hard labor making toys in order to earn your freedom. 

From the time Sinter and Piet come to the Netherlands in late November, preparing for delivery day, Dutch children are on guard: no one wants to piss off Sinterklaas and find themselves involved in white slavery.  It is not uncommon to see a crowd of Dutch children following Sinterklaas around at a public appearance, but taking care to give him a wide berth and to not make a sound.  When you’re Dutch you learn three things: 1.) How to swim, the country is below sea level; 2.) How to skate, for when the canals freeze over and you need to go on a midwinter’s burrito run; and 3.) Stay out of kicking range of otherwise benevolent, gift-giving saints. 

Interestingly, it isn’t this legacy of child abuse that has run Sinterklaas afoul of many contemporary Dutch parents: it’s Zwarte Piet.  For those of you who don’t know Dutch or German, “Zwarte Piet” translates to “Black Pete.”  The story goes that Piet is a Moor that Sinter met in Spanish prison back in the day; the two connected over torture and gift giving and formed a bromance that exists to this day.  In pantomimes, Piet has often been portrayed by a white person in black face, which is as unsettling as it sounds and has (thankfully) fallen out of favor in many regions.  Even the Dutch prime minister, weighed in cringingly on the issue earlier this year.

Personally, I think the image of Zwarte Piet is deeply offensive and I don’t think “tradition” is a strong enough reason to continue this aspect of the Sinterklaas festival.  Sinterklaas is a fictional character; there is no reason why the festival cannot be reshaped to reflect the Netherlands’ pluralistic society. 

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.

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