The Strange Phenomenon of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

First of all – Season’s Greetings to you all. This blog is coming to you from my little shoebox of an apartment in Belgium, having returned from a near life-threatening alcoholic overdose of a trip home, I now find myself in shorts and T-shirt at lunchtime on the Eve of New Year’s Eve, having treated myself to an evening off the booze and a twelve hour sleep.

All is good in the world again.

It’s taken me a while to write about this one but its something that I’ve wanted to bang on about for a while

On this planet called Earth that we all share and call our home – apart from those ex-girlfriend’s of mine who were most definitely from another plant – there is a wonderful diversity of life.

Languages, skin colours, morals, characteristics, appearances, fashion sense (or lack of it – see USA for details) all go to make this world of ours a world of constant wonderment.

Granted I’m no Alan Whicker, Louis Theroux or Bill Bryson but believe me, I’ve been around a bit.

And I’m not talking about ex-girlfriends this time.

The thing that I want to discuss in this blog; something that differs the world over and has a huge impact on the life we live, the way we behave and the opinions we opine is perhaps one of the most curious of all.


Tradition dictates many things to us in many different forms.

For example, if you were a resident of Stonehaven, Scotland, tradition would dictate to you that every twelfth night of Christmas (6th January), you would take part in the Fireball-Whirling ceremony.

Or of course, who could forget the Stilton cheese rolling festival on the early bank holiday Monday in May?

Pancake day, Easter Bunny, pagan rituals, the list is endless.

And then of course there’s the dressing up that’s involved – like kids dressing up for Halloween Trick or Treat, the infamous wearing of beads at Mardi Gras, or the bowler hats as preferred by the less fashionable members of the Orange Order on the 12th of July.

But readers, there is a wonderful dressing up tradition that some of you may have been privy to already during the build up to the festive season here in Belgium.

The one of Sinterklaas and his seriously dodgy sidekick Zwarte Piet.

First of all, the history of this tradition - a tradition that I have witnessed the Flemish and the Dutch indulge in for several years now with more than a hint of uneasiness:

In the fourth century a.d. St. Nicholas (in dutch called "Sinterklaas" or "Sint Nicolaas"; in german called "Sankt Nikolaus") was the bishop of Myra, which is now situated in Turkey. According to the legend, he saved his town from starvation. He is also said to have revived three dead children, and to have offered gifts of dowries to poor girls. Some sources say that he died on the sixth of December in 343. In 1087 his relics were taken to Bari in Italy. It is unclear why, according to the Dutch tradition, he comes from Spain. Possibly it has something to do with the fact that St. Nicholas was the patron of sailors. In the 17th century Holland was famous for its navigation. Maybe by contact with Spanish sailors this myth began. It could also explain why St. Nicholas has "zwarte (black) pieten" to help him because the Moors dominated Spain for several hundreds of years. (Another [more popular] explanation for "zwarte piet" being black is that he has come down the chimneys so often [see below] that he can't wash the dirt off.)
His legendary gifts of dowries to poor girls led to the custom of giving gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, 6 December. The companions of St. Nicholas (in Germany and Austria they are called "Knecht Ruprecht" or "Krampus") show the victory over evil. Together with his "pieten" he visits children to punish the evil ones and to reward the good ones. The worst punishment is to be taken to Spain in "zwarte piet's" bag out of which the good children get the sweets (called "pepernoten", "taai-taai", or "schuimpjes") and presents. A less radical punishment is to get the "roede" (rod) instead of presents. Nowadays there are not much evil children any more...
A few weeks before his feastday St. Nicholas comes to Holland (and Belgium) on his steamer with all his "pieten" and the presents which they prepared in Spain during the year. This event can be seen on Dutch television. From his arrival in Holland till his feastday the children can put their shoes in front of the fireplace. During the night St. Nicholas visits all the houses by travelling over the roofs on his horse, traditionally a white/grey (called "Schimmel" in dutch), and "zwarte piet" enters the houses through the chimney to put little presents in the children's shoes. Sometimes the children put straw, carrots and water near the shoe for the horse.
On the eve of his feast day St. Nicholas visits all children. After knocking on the door he gives them a bag full of presents (if they were good children). Early in the morning of 6 December, when he has visited everyone, he leaves and goes back silently to Spain, to come back next year.

OK, pretty harmless fun this may all seem, and the similarities with Santa Claus are plain for all to see, so why should this make me so uneasy?

Perhaps it’s because I come from the British Isles, where political correctness has gone mad.

Do you think that back home it would be possible for grown-up, white, men to paint their faces black and run around singing, playing pranks and giving sweets to little kids?
Remember the outcry from the golliwogs on the side of marmalade jars? Or who could forget the sudden lack of work for black and white minstrel shows? Or indeed our surprise to learn that “Baa, Baa, Black sheep” was not, as I had thought, a harmless children’s rhyme, but in fact something akin to the KKK’s anthem.

Erm, quite.

But yet, in this modern multi-cultural society that we live in, the legend of Sinter Klaas and his sidekick Zwarte Piet continues to be played out on a yearly basis to the delight of young children across this little corner of Europe.

Belgium is Boring? Perhaps not. But it’s certainly a lot more blasé about being politically correct.

Perhaps it’s we stuck-up Brits and Americans that have the problem? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time…