I think nothing of a fat bearded man whizzing around in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. But a skinny guy from Spain riding a flying white horse* accompanied by a gaggle of dark faced children seems strange. Is that cultural relativism or its opposite?
Today in Holland, and elsewhere, Sinterlkaas will fly around on his white horse dropping Zwarte Pieten** (Black Peters) with sacks filled with goodies down chimneys. His minions will leave these treats in the shoes*** of good children and stuff the naughty kids into their empty sacks. These bad boys and girls will be brought back to Spain where they will labor in Sinterlkaas’s workshop until they come of age or their parents decide to rescue them.
Poems, oranges, chocolate, and creatively wrapped surprises are also involved.
This is, of course, all well and good. The controversy arises when discussing Sinterlkaas’s helpers. Are they soot covered Dutch children happily helping dear Sinterlkaas or Black children from elsewhere forced in to servitude?
An unscientific study of shop windows shows that most people imagine Zwarte Piete as Sambo in renaissance drag.****
So, to my six Dutch friends: Happy Pakjesavond! May your mandarins be sweet, your chocolate thick, and your poems finely wrought.
Letter-shaped pastry filled with almond paste.
For the record, any holiday involving poetry and chocolate is A-OK in my book.
*From Spain to The Netherlands Sinterlkaas travels by steamboat.
**David Sedaris’s take on Zwarte Piete: Six To Eight Black Men
***Children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for Sinterlkaas’s horse.
**** More culturally sensitive rainbow colored Zwarte Pieten are on the rise.