Leiden Anthropology Blog

Sinterklaas: A white lie and how the soot vanished from Piet’s face

Sinterklaas: A white lie and how the soot vanished from Piet’s face By Marianne de Wit via Flickr

The discussion about Zwarte Piet shows that some lies are more acceptable than others and that some symbols unite while others divide. The time has come for a new lie of national unity.

Sinterklaas and the ‘free’ gift

More than two months before December 5, the celebration of Sinterklaas is being hotly debated. The discussion is not about how masses of adults systematically lie to children about the origins of the gifts that they receive. Nobody questions if it is pedagogically correct to let children believe that they receive Lego, a Smart Phone, or Battlefield 3 in exchange for a carrot for Sinterklaas’s horse or singing a quaint song about the ‘The bag of Sinterklaas’ in front of the radiator that replaced the chimney decades ago. Nobody even takes it upon themselves to question if lying to children is justified. This lie can easily be justified when you realise that Sinterklaas teaches children that what society makes you believe can be a unashamed lie, and that breaking the spell of Sinterklaas is part of creating responsible citizens. After all, when children find out that Sinterklaas is a lie they learn that they should distrust authorative voices, particularly those accompanied by gifts and songs.

Sinterklaas as Intimate humiliation

Parody by famous Dutch comedians 'Van Kooten en De Bie' on shopping for Sinterklaas gifts

The ‘surprise’ is equally uncontested. The ‘surprise’ is an anonymous gift, often in a specially crafted package, from a friend or family member, accompanied by a poem that the recipient has to read out loud in the circle of merrymakers. The poem typically starts with ‘Sinterklaas was thinking what he should give you’ ('Sinterklaas zat te denken wat hij jou zou schenken'). What follows is usually a long poem that contains numerous clichés about Sinterklaas and, more importantly, equally numerous painful and even insulting references to the recipient. The audience hears how poorly he behaved over the last year, how he lost his job, or how he embarrassed himself at his aunt’s birthday by drinking too much fruit punch. The finale of this intimate humiliation is reached when the recipient has to thank Sinterklaas for these insults. Custom demands that he has to look up as if the good bishop is still on the rooftop while saying out loud ‘Dank je wel Sinterklaas’. Nobody feels offended about these Sinterklaas lies and forms of symbolic violence.

Zwarte Piet

The only concern that shapes the fierce debate is that Piet is black. Many have pointed out that the concept of Zwarte Piet is racist -- see for example this contribution in the Guardian . Several public figures have argued that Zwarte Piet is part of a colonial discourse that is firmly rooted in the Dutch transatlantic slave trade; that Piet makes a mockery of black people, and denies them full Dutch citizenship. Several people point out how the image of Piet is used to humiliate black people and how Piet feeds into a broader oppressive narrative of black people as stupid, dirty, and clownesque. Piet’s supporters contend that it has nothing to do with racism, by arguing that Zwarte Piet is much older than the transatlantic slave trade and rooted in pre-Christian beliefs in the Devil, or that it is simply the soot in the chimney through which the presents are delivered that causes Piet to be black. Many argue, at times aggressively, that black people are being too sensitive and that they should respect ‘our Dutch traditions’.

Traditional Piet

Both proponents and opponents of Piet argue that Zwarte Piet is part of a long-standing tradition. Those that embrace and defend Zwarte Piet do so by saying that he is part of a gezellige family tradition, while critics see him as part of a racist political tradition. But it rather seems that Zwarte Piet is an ‘invented tradition’. The historians Hobsbawn and Ranger have shown that important traditions can be recent inventions whose historical roots are often shaky. Symbols, particularly national symbols, gain status by pretending that they are part of ancient institutions, rituals and practices. Hobsbawn and Ranger argue that these traditions are modern because it was particularly modern nation states that invented them in order to create national unity. Zwarte Piet seems to be such an invented tradition. The claims about the historical origins of Zwarte Piet are controversial: people draw on the ‘tradition’ that supports their opinion of, or reflects their experiences with, Zwarte Piet. In the process, the national unity of the Sinterklaas tradition is losing ground.

Symbolic Piet

The anthropologist Victor Turner has a fascinating perspective on symbols that helps us to understand the controversy about Zwarte Piet. On the basis of extensive ethnographic research in Africa, Turner found what he called the ‘multivocality of symbols’. In a ritual, Turner reveals, a symbol can have many different meanings at the same time. For Turner it is precisely the multivocality of symbols that can unite different people, dreams and experiences. But Zwarte Piet does not do this anymore. While all the other lies about Sinterklaas still unite people, the symbol of Zwarte Piet actually divides them. From Turner’s point of view one could argue that Zwarte Piet has become an obliterated symbol that has no place in ritual any longer. Societies change, rituals change, and in the process new and other multivocal symbols emerge.

A new Piet: stories

Some lies are more acceptable than others, some symbols unite while others divide. In an attempt to apply anthropology, let us produce culture and make a story that helps adults explain why Piet is rarely covered in soot nowadays and why there are increasingly fewer Zwarte Pieten:

It was a rainy afternoon and Sinterklaas was just about to start his siesta. After all, he lives in Spain and he loves to adjust to local cultural practices. Just when he was about to lay down Piet hurried in: ‘Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas, please do not start your siesta yet! We have a huge, huge problem!’

Sinterklaas, already grumpy because of Piet stealing his badly needed sleep (after all, this holy man was already very very old) responded: ‘Piet, before we talk about your problem, what happened to your face? Where is the soot! Come on, you should never look sloppy. Get your act together, put some chimney soot on your face and I will see you after my siesta.’

Piet insisted: ‘This is exactly it, Sinterklaas. I know you hate it when you are disturbed during your nap. But we have a HUGE problem.’

Sinterklaas let out a deep sigh. He had seen many problems come and go. What could be worse than the failed carrot harvest of 1762? Many children were unable to put a carrot in their shoe and Sinterklaas’ horse Amerigo nearly starved. He and the Pieten had had a long conference: Was it morally right to give children a present when they could not even offer a carrot first? And how do you distinguish the kids that were too lazy to give a carrot from those that really had nothing to share? Eventually, they solved the problem by proposing the song: Instead of a carrot, children could also sing a song for Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas had also had many sleepless nights when the birth control pill was developed in the 1950s. Usually Sinterklaas was not much occupied with such intimate matters. If it was up to him children would simply be delivered by the stork. But this pill could not be ignored, because birth rates started to drop drastically. Piet used his recently acquired actuarial knowledge to calculate that there would be no children left to give presents to by the year 2008. That was a problem. He was so relieved when he found out that Piet had made a mistake with one of the algorithms.

This better be serious, Sinterklaas thought and Piet explained: ‘Sinterklaas, all these houses and apartments in the Netherlands are without chimneys. Today almost every house has central heating and chimneys are disappearing like crazy. The few chimneys that are left are hardly used any longer. Soot has become extremely scarce. Today it is easier to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow than a decent layer of sticky chimney soot’. Piet’s eyes started to brim over with nostalgia. He had such fond memories of going through the chimney, taking the carrot, delivering the present, and returning to the rooftop covered in soot.

Sinterklaas was agitated: ‘Then colour your face in the colours of the rainbow instead. This is hardly a problem, isn it?’ But Piet did not like that idea at all: ‘The children will think that we are gobstoppers. They will start licking our faces to see if the colours change. That is just terrible, Sinterklaas! I can tell it is time for your nap.’

Sinterklaas replied. ‘Then don’t use colour at all. We should indeed not resort to some inferior solution. It has to be proper chimney soot or nothing at all. Just explain to the children that we ran out of soot, they will surely understand. Children are generally smart. And is this all, Piet? Was this the reason for keeping me from my siesta? You know how much I value tradition, so let me go and rest now.’

Piet left hugely relieved. Indeed, this crisis was peanuts compared to the failed carrot harvest of 1762 and the arrival of the birth control pill.


Posted by HPax on October 7, 2016 at 00:15

Dutch Sinterklaasfeest (D-SKF) held yearly on 5 december has (a) age-old roots1 and (b) familiar and therefore comparable variations in a lot of other countries. We are not alone! One version e.g. is Christmas celebration in the USA. In that all-society ‘show’ the keyplayer is named Santa Claus, clearly a fusion of our Sinterklaas and the Kerstman. It seems that in both cases the main functions have been maintained: giving gifts and control children. Parents need societal support, today, long ago. Sometting like that..

In southern Belgium and eastern France, Sinterklaas on his incoming there on 6th december is accompagnied by a person called Père Fouettard (Wikipedia). Ugly as he is he fullfils the role of bogeyman in relation to children. And there are more (Western?) societies where the tradition of ‘our’ Sinterklaas is kept. More or less, and practically never the same way. And this last remark is applicable to our own D-SKF too. Over the centuries it varied considerably in roles, functions and public appreciation, but with preservation of its core. QED.

These days D-KSF is silting up in an anti-racist agitation. Socially and politically uderstandable giving the problems of Mass Immigration, but academically rejectable and structurally spoken…. unforgivable. A kind of Benda’s ‘trahison des clercs’. 

What D-SKF deserves is the anthropological status of MYTH. Variations of that myth should be collected, internally compared and externally tested. Now. How that can be done we can learn from CL. Lévi-Strauss.

1. Long before ‘our’ discovery of Africa or Melanesia.

Erik Bähre
Posted by Erik Bähre on November 17, 2014 at 15:29

Thanks Marieke for pointing this out and you are right: it divides and unites at the same time.

Marieke Slootman
Posted by Marieke Slootman on November 17, 2014 at 15:25

I like the critical view on all these other (taken for granted) aspects of the Sinterklaas-celebration and greatly enjoyed the story. But by saying that Zwarte Piet does not unite different people anymore, we overlook the fact that Zwarte Piet unites many people in a strong way. We could say: more strongly than ever! (I suppose Turner has never meant that a symbol should unite ALL people.) And I think that precisely this accounts for the fierce opposition to change…

Erik Bähre
Posted by Erik Bähre on November 19, 2013 at 14:17

Thanks Teun (if I may), I enjoyed your contribution in the VK and indeed we both realise how important symbols are.

Teun Voeten
Posted by Teun Voeten on November 19, 2013 at 00:56

Thanks Dr. Bähre, very interesting piece.

love the concept of “multivocality of symbols”, which I actually also used in an op-ed piece I wrote in De Volkskrant…


and yes, we Dutch anthropologists are torn between two lovers regarding the Zwarte Piet discussion: We are always at the defense of indigenous cultures of far away people,  yet some of us want to get rid of our own quirky tribal customs as no to offend others… indeed, stuck between a rock and a hard place…

Posted by carsten888 on October 31, 2013 at 10:42

That plot you wrote can be used in the sinterklaasjournaal. Problem solved.

Kirsten Verpaalen
Posted by Kirsten Verpaalen on October 31, 2013 at 10:26

This would be an interesting contribution to the debate for a broader public, too. But maybe you published elsewhere as well and I missed it?

Ben Noort
Posted by Ben Noort on October 26, 2013 at 14:26

I dont think that you understand it all the way. Cuz it is only the adults that do this for a joke who are getting insulted bij sinterklaas. The children (when they are bad doing at school) then they get critized in a positive way. So that they preform better at school.

Erik Bähre
Posted by Erik Bähre on October 26, 2013 at 01:30

Thanks all for your encouraging comments and ideas.

Nathalie: Stories are so important, we tend to forget the value of good stories. And I agree that the Sinterklaas Journaal holds the key to change because that is where stories are made and have authority. Let us wait and see what they will do. I think once the Sinterklaas Journaal presents another version of Piet it could be accepted very quickly. I mean, who is going to argue with their children that they were not told the truth about Sinterklaas?

Maarten, thanks for reflecting on your own experiences. I think you point to something very important: the feeling of being included once you know that Sinterklaas is not real and invited into the world of adulthood. It creates some kind of unity through a shared symbol. And a game? I see why you prefer to call it that way, but I am sure that many feel it is not so playfull.

Posted by Tracy on October 25, 2013 at 22:07

Thanks, Erik, this is a fascinating story.  I’ve been interested in the Zwarte Piet issue since the year at NIAS and have kept up on the controversy.  This is a terrific post - really adds something new to the debate.

Maarten Vreeburg
Posted by Maarten Vreeburg on October 25, 2013 at 17:05

I don’t quite agree with the first points made here.

I do not view the Sinterklaas tradition as a structural, elaborate lie told to children, but rather as a game that is played every year. When I found out at age 6 or 7 that Sinterklaas wasn’t real, I didn’t feel I was lied to, but that I had become initiated into the world of grown-ups. I was deemed old enough to know the truth and to help preserve the game for my younger cousin and other kids at school and in my neighbourhood. I remember this moment very well and I felt good about it.

What could be criticized is the ‘disciplining’ that flows forth from the belief in Sinterklaas; if you’re good, you get presents, if you’re bad, you’re taken away to Spain. I never experienced this as a big threat, and that’s not because I always was a good kid (I was really just like every other kid). I was raised to see Sinterklaas as a benign guy who would pretty much reward everyone in the same way. Maybe a bit like believing in the possibility of Heaven with no Hell existing to be its opposite. Other people propably have different experiences at this point.

The ‘symbolic violence’ thing really takes it a bit too far. In my family’s Sinterklaas tradition, I remember the poems being nice and often quite hilarious. Sinterklaas was usually portrayed as a grumpy, but benign and half-senile old guy. He would sometimes ask my sisters out on dates (usually in poems written by their boyfriends, my brother or me), or compliment people on the nice hobbies they have and ask if he could join them sometime. I don’t recall ‘intimate humiliation’, but I do remember everyone breaking down in laughter for several minutes because of well-crafted poems.

Merely generalizing one’s own experiences to illustrate tradition doesn’t really make for a compelling argument and gives off a pretty one-sided view to people who have never personally experienced the ritual.

The other points are sound. I quite agree on Piet being a symbol mostly inciting division and frustration, rather than unity. Anthropologists might read Zwarte Piet as an arena where meanings of identity are fiercely contested. One needs only to listen to people voicing nationalist sentiments, using Zwarte Piet as a vehicle to attack what they see as harmful foreign influences such asthe UN, immigrants, multicultural society).

I do hope (and believe) this tradition is able to adapt to today’s social reality, growing into a symbol that everyone can enjoy.

Posted by Mirjam on October 25, 2013 at 16:28

Thanks, Erik, for this wonderful story. May it unite the many who love to celebrate the Sinterklaasfeest.

Nathalie van Hees
Posted by Nathalie van Hees on October 25, 2013 at 14:26

It is so interesting to hear an anthropologists point of view on the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet. Thank you very much for writing that. I have been playing with the idea of writing a blog from a psychologists perspective, but I must admit to lack of courage. Part of it would be about how not all parents are capable of inventing good alternate explanations on the spot. Therefore we need to provide them with some. Just like you just did in your blog. I think we need an extension to your story to cover the problem of “recognizability”. The thick black make-up is helping to keep the next door neighbor from being recognized while playing Zwarte Piet. My creativity does not get me farther than something along the lines of “hulp Pieten” similar to what is now used to explain multiple Sinterklaas appearances to kids; “Some people are allowed to be helpers to Sinterklaas because he can not be everywhere at the same time. The Sint on tv is the real one. Similarly, some people help out as Piet, because there are simple to many children and not enough Pieten.” Would that work? Or perhaps you have a more creative solution?

K Lee
Posted by K Lee on October 25, 2013 at 12:35

I knew nothing about ‘Zwarte Piet’ before this. It was such an interesting material and your story either.

Posted by Janine on October 25, 2013 at 12:04

Great story, Erik!
Anthropology is such a wonderful discipline smile

Add a Comment

Name (required)

E-mail (required)

Please enter the word you see in the image below (required)

Your own avatar? Go to www.gravatar.com

Remember me
Notify me by e-mail about comments