Moving to Holland is not easy, but it's worth the effort. This blog tells the story of shifting from American life in Pittsburgh to Expat life in the Netherlands,
and all of our European adventures that follow.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet... the strangest Dutch tradition

December 5th is a special day in The Netherlands, they celebrate Sinterklaas. Dutch families exchange presents and children leave shoes by the door which are filled with chocolates & tiny gifts. Sounds familiar, like the Santa Claus and stockings that we are used to... but there is a strange difference: Zwarte Piet. Translated this means Black Pete, which is a literal description, as they are helpers that paint their faces black.

I pulled this pic from the internet to give you a clear mental image (I also find it strange that Sinterklaas wears a Pope hat):

In most places, especially the US, it would be unheard of to pant your face black. When we first saw this in person we were shocked. But the Dutch find it perfectly normal and festive. They've all grown up with it, and enjoy carrying on the tradition with their children.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Sint & Piet for short) are manifested in nearly every form imaginable, from dolls...
... to chocolates and marzipan...

... to wrapping paper...

... and even Zwarte Piet cakes (eek!):

This year, we hosted the Sinterklaas party for Chad's colleagues from work. One tradition they do each year is to write a poem about another person (anonymously) which includes a lot of sarcasm and jokes about the person. Each person reads their poem in front of the group, and the goal is to really embarrass the person without completely offending them (none were too bad this year).

There is also a gift exchange. This year, the theme was for each person to buy two small gifts, one that was blue and another that was edible. The gifts then go into a pile, and a dice game begins. Depending on the number rolled, you either pick a gift from the pile, pass your gift left or right, unwrap the gift, take another person's gift, or give yours away. This goes on until each person has a gift.

I'm glad there we were able to experience this Dutch holiday tradition (mostly with our jaws dropped), but I don't think I'll adopt Zwarte Piet into my holiday festivities. We bought the Sint & Piet dolls to mark the interesting occasion, but I think I will hide them from our children until they are a bit older, as not to corrupt and/or terrify them. Tell me this Zwarte Piet doll isn't creepy! We used to tell ghost stories at slumber parties about china dolls whose finger nails would grow at night and scratch you. I can easily see this doll taking over the roll in that scary story.

I wish them all the best with their traditions, but I'll take Santa and his tiny elves any day!


More pics on Flickr:
For your entertainment, here is comedian David Sedaris' take on the holiday:


Charlie Sheen said...

Where did you find the Sinter Klaas and Zwarte Piet dolls?? I collect Santas and, being of Dutch heritage, I'm desperately seeking a Sinter Klaas for my collection.

Suzanne Kanick said...

I got them at a Blokker store in The Netherlands around Christmas time. I'm not sure if it's something they carry every year.