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