Xmas is just around the corner and like every country in the world, the Netherlands is beginning the pre-amble to the presents under the tree.
But unlike the States, where we seem to be shopping for Xmas from Black Friday on, there’s a very different black presence seen everywhere here in Amsterdam.
His name is Zwarte Piet. Also, known as Black Piet. Also known as Santa’s Helper.
From every shop window, every poster and every newspaper, his smiling face beams out. Dressed head to toe in a kind of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves meets The Count of Monte Christo getup, he’s quite the jolly looking little chap.
Except that every time you see him, it’s a white guy in black face makeup. The dolls look like the golliwog kind that were banned in most countries years before.
And coming from America, the land that invented Political Correctness, it’s a full frontal assault on everything you are never supposed to say, think or do. Let alone dance a merry jig while you say think or do it.
Naturally I asked my Dutch friends, what’s the story? Officially he’s Santa’s helper. Ok, sure, I get that, but why is it a white guy in black face makeup? Officially, it’s because he got sooty from going up and down all the chimneys.
But the real story, they will confide in low tones, is he’s more like Santa’s slave, the iconography of which is a hangover from another time here in the Netherlands. The kind of thing that visually died off in the 70s everywhere else but just kept quietly going here.
Alright, I thought, it’s kind of confined to print and whatnot, still makes me uncomfortable, but you know, ok…
Then the other week I was out in Dam Square, the same square that Paul and I nearly soiled ourselves in during the high-flying fun ride, to be confronted with a full on Zwarte Piet celebration. The entire square had been converted into a concert venue for the day and people had come out in droves to see ZP and the band.
Families watched as a band of Zwarte Piets played traditional Dutch songs and kids rhymes. There was a Zwarte Piet comedian running around talking to all the kids. And then there’s the kids themselves, dozens of them running around in home-made brown make-up, blonde hair poking out from sparkly, feathered floppy caps.
We’ve all seen pictures of a Black and White Minstrel show and old footage of Al Jolson movies, but this was something you just don’t expect to see in 2010. And everyone is having a blast. If you pulled a stunt like this in the States, at minimum there would be arrests, at worst a riot.
So, once the shock wears off, and you pinch yourself to see if you’re still dreaming, there’s all the obvious things you can say about it. So obvious that, you know, they’re really not worth listing.
But like I said everyone here seems to having a good time. Even the black families, the real ones not in makeup. You can smell caramel in the air, people are eating stroopwafels and singing along.
There’s no protestors being held by police in some corner, there’s no anti-ZP movement that I read about in the papers.
And it has to be said that even though there’s a guy singing with black makeup and bright red lipstick on, it’s in a country where I’ve seen more mixed race couples and children than anywhere I can think of in my life.
I guess the question is, is everyone allowed to have their own embarrassing thing that defies explanation but just is a part of normal life?
In America, I think of all the jobs that are assigned to people based on class and color. “God” is written on the money, as well as that pyramid with the Shining Eye. Creepy. The Constitution is written on hemp paper so you know, there’s a good chance the Founding Fathers were potheads.
Weeks later I still don’t quite know what to make of ZP, but I guess every country has its own Zwarte Piet in some form. At least this one, everyone can sing along to.