Tag Archives: St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas

I am still having difficulty getting inspired to write regularly on this blog. Ironically, I wrote six posts for my Dutch blog this week. Writing those posts gave me one idea to write about here – books I’ve read in 2014 -, but I’m too lazy to write that post.

I went on the SITS Girls website and looked at the prompts for December. Yesterday’s prompt asked if we celebrate with Santa Clause. Since St. Nicholas or Santa Clause is a particularly Dutch (and somewhat Belgian) tradition, at least in its most well-known form, I thought I’d write about that. A day late – or two, since the St. Nick’s celebration is on December 5 here -, but who cares?

St. Nicholas in some ways is like Christmas in the U.S., in that we swap gifts, there’s an old man with a white beard and a red coat involved and we eat lots of candy. There are specific St. Nicholas candies. For example, people often get a chocolate letter.

We used to celebrate St. Nicholas with my family rather than Christmas. At school, we also celebrated St. Nicholas in additon to Christmas. A tradition in many homes and classrooms is to package your gifts in a surprise package and to draw names to determine who has to gift to whom. Of course, you always thank “Santa Clause” and in some cases, who really gifted you will remain unknown to you forever. Like, I never found out who’d gifted me some chocolates packaged in a box that was made to look like a laptop in seventh grade.

At our home, we usually gave each of our family members a present, at least from the moment we were old enough to have some money for it and not believe that Santa Clause existed anymore. I hated the name-drawaing, surprise-gifting process and to my knowledge I managed to persuade (or tantrum) my parents into never adopting that tradition.

Another tradition which I couldn’t keep my parents from adopting was the Santa Clause poem. The most boring kind goes along the lines of “Santa thought long and hard what to gift dear Edward”. The best ones have some kind of moral advice in them and if they’re really good, they’re humorous too. It was usually easy to tell who had gifted me something by the quality of and tone in the poems. My mother was the one with the hugely moralizing poems, my father incorporated humor and some advice, and my sister would make up words in order to make the words rhyme. I hardly ever wrote poems and hated having to read the ones I got aloud. In fact, I hated the whole pretend play involved in Santa Clause once I was old enough to no longer believe he existed. I never went along with it.

Nonetheless, I liked celebrating Santa Clause, though possibly more for the gifts and a bit because we’d always done it this way than for any other reason. It did sadden me that we stopped celebrating St. Nicholas once I got into the psychiatric hospital. Now we visit my parents every other year for Christmas instead.

Racism and Black Peter

Last year, not for the first time but for the first time I did notice, debate sparked in the Netherlands about the St. Nicholas celebration and the color of “Zwarte Piet” (Black Peter), St Nick’s helper. I didn’t pay much attention to the debate, but when a number of my Facebook friends signed the “Pietition” to keep Black Peter black, I did so, too. I had never thought of Black Peter as referring to slavery. Possibly, it’s because I didn’t know that he was decorated rather steretoypcially with red lipstick, earrings, etc. More likely, it’s because I possess White privilege and I horribly neglect racism in my attempts at educating myself about minoriyt points of view.

Around the discussion last year, my husband introduced me to a point of view which said that apparently White people’s enjoyment of the tradition is more important than Black people’s dissatisfaction with it, and this is racist. We, and I include myself here, often say that Black people who complain are just “professional niggers” shouting “racism” at every opportunity to do so. Then again, I for one am pretty well-known for calling out ableism (discrimination of people with disabilities) at every opportunity at least on my blog.

I understand both points of view. White people insisting on tradition probably aren’t otherwise racist, rather more likely having trouble shifting perspective from their own privileged stance to the minority person’s. Of course Black Peter has got to be black, everyone knows this, because I’m in the majority here and I know. On the other hand, Black Peter does have a traditional helper role, which could easily be interpreted as a reference to slavery (and it is likely that the historical St. Nick had slaves too, though they may not have been Black). Tradition is important for many people, but can’t we shift it a little bit for some people’s comfort?

St. Nick will arrive in the Netherlands in Gouda on November 15 this year. The St. Nicholas committee has decided to include a majority of black Peters, but to include yellow-faced “Gouda cheese” Peters too. That way, they give both parties a little of what they want, but I doubt either will be satisfied. Particularly some people supporting traditionally black Peters have radicalized over the year a bit towards a more hostile form of racism rather than mere ignorance.

Mama’s Losin’ It