Wednesday, October 23, 2013


In the latest storm in a teacup, a functionary of the United Nations has decided that the Dutch had better permanently cancel an annual celebration, because she does not like it.

Professor Verene Shepherd, member of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, recommended that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte forbid forever the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day on December sixth, because it is, in her expert opinion, a return to slavery.

As a black woman, and a Jamaican, she is offended.

One can understand why. She is incredibly sensitive and in a permanent state of dudgeon. Naturally she would be upset.

Prof. Shepherd is editor/compiler of Women in Caribbean History, co-editor of Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective (with Barbara Bailey and Bridget Brereton) and editor of Engendering Caribbean History: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (forthcoming, 2010). Among her other publications are Livestock, Sugar & Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica (2009), I Want to Disturb My Neighbour: Lectures on Slavery, Emancipation and Post-Colonial Jamaica (2007) and Maharani’s Misery: Narratives of a Passage from India to the Caribbean (2002).[*]

A previous foray by the respected professor saw her demanding that England, France, and the Netherlands pay reparations for slavery to several Caribbean nations. Which is an idea that only makes sense if they take those funds out of the budgets set aside for aid to developing countries, make a one-time payment, subsequently reduce diplomatic relations with such failed states to an interest section at best, and never send another cent that way again.

There is no logical, moral, or ethical reason why the tax-payers in those countries should be shafted because Caribbean nations have, in the generations since their independence, utterly failed to do anything worthwhile. Putting a financial burden on people who themselves are in the main descended from desperately poor disenfranchised victims of imperialism -- as the populations of Europe are, and as any student of history should know -- would be a grossly unfair and racist act. Arguing that because poor starving illiterate peasants and brutally exploited urban proletarians lived in countries which were involved in the colonial enterprise, their great-great-great grandchildren should now be robbed, for the benefit of corrupt politicians who may or may not be great-great-great grandchildren of people who were equally starving, illiterate, and exploited.........

Well now.

Let me tell you what you can do with your Blue Mountain Coffee.
As well as ganja, murder capital of the Caribbean [*], and ska.

But let us return to the folkloric event which got her professorial and United Nations knickers bunched in a wedgie.

Saint Nicholas Day.


During the night of December fifth, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) rides over the rooftops on his white steed, with his servants, and descends down the chimneys to leave presents and candy for little children. Which they happily discover the next morning.

But NOT the kids who have been irredeemably naughty. Those were stuffed in a burlap sack, to be taken away to Spain, where they will be tortured by the Spanish and put to work as slaves on the galleys.

Half a month before this wondrous abduction of the little monsters, the good holy man arrived on a steam boat in Amsterdam harbour, where he and the joyous entourage were welcomed by the city fathers.

In the period leading up to his feast-day on December sixth, he and his servants made appearances at numerous parties and charity events, where children obediently sang cheerful songs, and quivered apprehensively because he would sit in judgment over them.
Good little boys and girls got candy. Sometimes lots of candy.
Bad little boys and girls got a wild thrashing with a broom or bundle of birch twigs, administered clumsily but with enormous enthusiasm by one of the saint's servants.

They had better reform by the Fifth of December, or else!

Obviously the celebration has an element of moral instruction, and encouragement to the little savages to lead more upstanding lives. Which is salving to their parents, besides providing excitement, tension, and entertainment.
Very wholesome.

Except that the servants are in black face.
They are 'Black Pete'.


Usually the role of 'Black Pete' is played by teenage girls, with thick black face paint, red lips, and curly wigs. Dressed in mediaeval page costumes. Talking in gibberish, which is supposed to be some dialect of Spanish.

The back-story on the servants used to be that because the saint lives in Spain, the servants are Moors or Moriscos. One variant has Black Pete as an Ethiopian slave freed by the saint, who subsequently converted to Christianity and followed the holy man on his travels.
The more modern tale explains that it is the servants who go down chimneys, while the saint patiently waits above. That is why they are black; they are covered with soot.

Why chimney sweeps are dressed in Mediaeval garb is a mystery.
Embroidered doublet, poufy breeches, and dark hose.
Please don't ask. Probably union rules.

There are, in fact, older roots to the tale, in which the holy man is seen as a likely re-interpretation of Odin, and the servants are variously devils, trolls, or Odin's ravens.
A politicized event I once attended (unwillingly) turned them into the proletarian workforce making consumer goods all year long, and the saint into a reformed cleric who became party commissar.
There have also been purple Petes.

But what remains essential is the birch or willow implements used to administer remonstrance. Without the credible threat of punishment -- as well as the terrifying prospect of permanent servitude on Spanish galleys in the Mediterranean -- the event loses its rectificatory suasion.
Along with whatever entertainment value it has for grown-ups.

Black face. Pitch-hued and shiny.
And a curly fright wig.

"The working group cannot understand why it is that people in The Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery, and that in the twenty first century this practice should stop! My personal view is that in the twenty first century this should not be happening!"

-----Verene Shepherd
[Source: Telegraaf TV. In Dutch, except for her sound byte. Note both the newsreader, dressed as Black Pete, as well as the salt of the earth types giving their views on the matter. Then note further the ending bit, where an Iranian festive occasion (Nowruz) is shown featuring a buffoonish performer in black face (Hajji Firuz); an event which is registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Because Persians cannot be bigots.]

You know, I am mighty surprised that the Catholic Church has not objected vociferously over this rancid stereotyping of its teachings and the role of its functionaries. An absolute cliché of a churchman, plus elements of clerical sadism, and the bribing of little children with sweeties so that they kiss-up to the prelate.

It's shocking, is what it is.

Remarkably, however, it was the Catholics who kept the tradition alive when the severe Calvinist church fathers in the north would have banned it for being a Papist feast, propaganda for the Evil Bishop of Rome, and heretical in the extreme.

I can remember being terrified as a five year old by the prospect of being taken back to Spain in a gunny sack. Spain was a horrid place, everyone knew that! And Spanish people were incredibly mean.
We Dutch-speakers have a history with Spain.
It is fundamental to our psyche.

Of course, by the time I was twelve I was marveling over the shapely legs of Zwarte Piet, as well as the evidence of curvature.
Mmmm, Black Pete has boobies!

I'll be the first to admit that questions may be asked about this charming little example of Northern European culture.
All folklore is dark. Some of it disturbing.

But Ms. Verene Shepherd should NOT interfere with our candy.

[Ms. Shepherd is not alone in her crusade. The signatories of the first letter of bellyache (dated January 17, 2013) are: Verene Shepherd, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on people of African descent; Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; Izsàk Rita, Independent Expert on minority issues; Mutuma Ruteere, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.]

You know, I still find shapely teenage girls in theatric mediaeval garb and black face exciting. Good things are bound to happen with them around! And if there is a graduate of a British Public School present, there could even be a birching! He'll like that!
There may, in fact, be candy.
It will stop the weeping.
Candy is good.

Such things don't happen very often in my circles.

Lively lassies with candy, that is.

The traditional confectionary during the Saint Nicholas season consists of 'Pepernoten', 'Taai taai', marzipan, crisp gingerbread biscuits, tablet, and above all chocolates. Huge heaping mounds of chocolates.
The obedient little brat gets a large chocolate letter for the initial of his or her first name. The cretinous little sod, as previously mentioned, will be abducted by Spaniards.

Note: David Sedaris' lecture about Zwarte Piet is here: Live at Carnegie Hall.
He provides a complete how-to, more or less.
Informative and educational.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

1 comment:

ambivalently amphibious said...

The idea of being taken to Spain by half a dozen teenaged Dutch girls, blackface notwithstanding, is...well, disturbing in a way that it's probably not supposed to be.

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