Why would anyone think that blacking up is a suitable way to mark Christmas?
Opinion: The important question is not are you allowed to do this but why would you want to do this?
A child dressed as “Zwarte Piet” or “Black Pete”watches a parade after St Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, arrived by boat in Amsterdam last year. Photograph: AP
To attempt any neat summary of a nation’s habits probably constitutes a class of soft racism. Germans are often funny. Italians are often subdued. The Irish are not drunk and stupid all the time. Still, it’s hard to shake those simplistic stereotypes. Consider this story about Dutch people “blacking up” for Christmas. As a lazy dunderhead, I prefer to class all citizens of the Netherlands as enormously tall, endlessly tolerant liberals who seethe with enthusiasm for racial harmony and the free sale of high-grade cannabis sativa. (If that’s what it’s called. I don’t know. I just go there for the herring.) Not quite.
News arrived last week that a UN working group is to look into the Dutch tradition of dressing up as “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) during the Christmas season. The background to the habit reads like some particularly horrid episode of The League of Gentlemen. One telling of the Santa Claus story has a figure named Sinterklaas travelling with black slaves who wallop naughty children and drag them off to their master’s lair in Spain. Why not? Let’s take a dig at the poor Spaniards while we’re at it.
It seems that all those decent Dutch parents – rucksacks, sturdy bicycles and affordable creches – now tell a slightly different story to their offspring. Black Pete apparently gets his colour from the soot he picks up when shimmying down the chimney with gifts.
I seem to remember, back in the 1970s, the producers of the Black and White Minstrel Show arguing that the blacked- up singers weren’t actually pretending to be African-Americans. This was just some ancient tradition. Like bear-baiting. Or dunking women believed to be witches.
It’s not entirely clear what the UN plans to do about this. So far, the body has denounced the tradition for “stirring racial differences as well as racism” and suggested that it may be unable to include the Sinterklaas festival in “the Unesco list of immaterial cultural heritage”.
A representative of the Dutch government wrote back to acknowledge that the habit could be seen as offensive and – rather amusingly – to clarify that they had made no request for a place on this mysterious list. “Ooo, no! No immaterial cultural heritage for us. Whatever will we do?” the Dutch did not really sarcastically reply.
Nonetheless, the story has built up so much steam in the Netherlands you’d think that men in blue helmets were about to storm the borders and drag sooty children into detention camps. Last weekend, several hundred people protested in The Hague and Nijmegen to “keep Black Pete black”. The prime minister has made a statement.