Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Christmas in July: Going Dutch

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ok, sure, it's July, and the last thing on your mind is broadening your...uh...mind...with exposure to international holiday traditions - I get it. However, this particular post was deemed by the powers that be* too controversial to post back in December, so all my hard work and sparkling wit got shelved, its radiance cloaked all these long months.

So what changed?

Well, that's a long story. One involving too many mango mojitos, a Chuck marathon, and a malfunctioning alarm clock. (Ok, so maybe it's not that long of a story...)

But enough intro: you guys ready to have those minds broadened? I promise it will only sting a little.

*meaning me, John, and the cat

In the Netherlands Santa Claus (called Sinterklaas) doesn't have elves for sidekicks; he has Zwarte Piet (meaning "Black Pete"). Zwarte Piet is usually played by a white guy in blackface makeup, a curly black wig, and big gold hoop earrings. (I am SO not making this up.)

Here's a reference photo from Wikipedia:

"Get your hand off my robe; you'll make it dirty."

Zwarte shows up in cake form quite a lot, too, and in less than flattering ways:

However, if this seems a little insensitive to you, Wreckporter Kiki has a perfectly reasonable explanation:

"Dutch people claim Pete is black because of the soot in the chimneys he has to climb down to deliver the gifts."

OH, so it's soot! Ok, I get it. And you're right: this does look a lot like Bert the chimney sweep:

We all know how Bert liked his lipstick.

And dressing up like Aunt Jemima:

This one found by Wouter T. is probably the most wreckish; it looks like the remains of a melting muppet:

Ever heard the expression "in for a penny, in for a pound"? Well, since I'm already stirring up trouble here, I may as well share what Megan H. found at a bakery in Argentina:

They're little cakes called "Africancitos", or "little black men". With bows on their heads. I don't think they're a holiday treat, though, so you can enjoy your little-black-men cake heads any time of the year. "Great for parties!"

(Yes, I've officially crossed the line from horrified disbelief into horrified humor. It's more fun over here - won't you join me?)

To those of you offended by all this, you should know that Zwarte Piet was not intended to be offensive. (Argentina, you're on your own.) And to those of you who see nothing wrong with outdated and racially insensitive traditions, you should take a look at this poster:

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Matt said...

Hum, they could at least use like a powder make-up to make it look more ashy. Plus, has he ever heard of a face mask? Also, if it's ash, shouldn't the lipstick part be the most heavily covered? I...I personally like reindeer.

Angel H. said...

Capability Bowes:
Trust the bleeding-hearts to be offended on behalf of everyone else. Have you tried asking black people whether they are offended?

Black woman here, and yes, I'm offended (by the cakes and the idea of "Black Pete", not by the post). And yes, it's offensive:

Scritzy said...

A CHUCK marathon! I so love you!

The little black man cakes look like Mick Jagger dipped in chocolate. Just sayin'.

Korbl said...

"(Yes, I've officially crossed the line from horrified disbelief into horrified humor. It's more fun over here - won't you join me?)"

all I have to say, is... "welcome to the fun side, what took you so long?"

this kinda stuff seems to go over a bit better in countries that don't have America's er.. spotty racial history...

and hey, it could be worse... there could be cakes of the demon that follows the German Claus.

girl6 said...

I'm African-American and I find the perpetuation of racist imagery of any kind--including cakes--offensive. The cakes are not funny and should not be dismissed as a "regrettable tradition". It is the flippant attitude of ,"well, it's just this or it's only that" allows continued marginalization and oppression. We must ask ourselves why this Christmas fable degenerated into ghastly depictions of people of African heritage. Read up on the history of the Dutch Empire in South Africa. That may help answer that question.

Most people would be horrified if cakes depicting caricatures of WWII concentration camp survivors or First Nations diaspora victims were made into a cake.


I don't really expect people to understand. I can hear all the "yeah, buts" already. It's complex. And people wonder why some of us are so angry all the time.

Context also plays a part. Black people have had to develop a sense of humor about this, too. The post was funny. The imagery was not. Those cakes look like really, really tan Angelina Joilies.

What? The lips...

Dorci said...

Calm down Capability Bowes. Other countries' traditions are weird. C'mon, a guy who canes children or bags 'em and carts 'em off to Spain if they're bad?? That's weird!

And did you read about the Caga Tio (pooping log)?? That's just odd! I didn't say Americans didn't have some odd traditions, too, but to me, an American, it's strange to read about the Christmas traditions of other countries.

I didn't say I was offended, I didn't say I didn't laugh about it. Just saying. It's weird.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm appalled. Please think of your loyal readers and fans before you post something so blatantly racist...even if it is from Argentina. Yes, times have changed...yes, people are more tolerant...but Cake Wrecks is the last place I thought I'd be reminded of such bigotry that is "candy coated" to be passed off as humor. Disappointed. I will not be returning to your site.

Embarrassed said...

I've been telling my (diverse) group of friends how hilarious your site is. Imagine how I felt when I found "Pete" on the homescreen...along with his several other racist variations. I could not even begin to explain. And for the record, a simple "poster" about tradition does not compensate for your lack of judgement on posting this thread.

Anonymous said...

I've known for a long time that many OTHER countries are much slower to evolve past racism than America. They keep vewy vewy quiet about it because it suits them for us to take the heat. They marvel at long and hard we keep beating ourselves up.

I agree. Let's make fun of the cakes and leave it at that. Just because.

Gwen said...

As you can read, Santa Claus is a rip off from Sinterklaas. First you had Sinterklaas and when the dutch people came to New Amsterdam you got to meet him. You put your shoe in the hall and when you wake up there is candy in it. You hang your socks. It is pretty much all the same. Most of the kids like the Pieten better than they do Sinterklaas. So better love him because if there was no Sinterklaas you wouldn´t have your Santa Claus. He is even named the same way. Saint Nick (Sint Nicolaas), Santa Claus (Sinterklaas).

Mitsuko said...

I live in Belgium and we have the same characters here. However, it is NOT part of the Christmas celebration (and it is not in the Netherlands either). Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet come on 6th December for the St-Nicolas day. And then, on Christmas, we had Santa Claus too! For what I've seen, Zwarted Piet is not played mostly by black guys. This means no exaggerated features... I hope it's politically correct enough for you! (But really, guys, get out more... America and its fear of "OMG, it's racist" is not the only country in the world!)

La Pimienta said...

Points for the FotC reference on Zwarte Piet!

I love the site (you handled things wonderfully, by the way.)

Every time I go on this site, I laugh so hard I cry. And it's so hard to not do it LOUD - My husband works overnights - so I look kind of crazy trying to stifle my laughter.

Anonymous said...

Another Dutchie here. Here's two facts I'd like you all to consider:
1) There never were slaves in the Netherlands. Yes, Dutch people were involved in the slave trade; but there never were slaves in the Netherlands. So in the collective memory, there is no link between dark skin and slavery. Because, and I can't stress this enough, there never were slaves in the Netherlands. This changes our perpective considerably.
2) If I, as a child, had seen a dark-skinned person (for obvious reasons, we don't use the word African-American here) playing Zwarte Piet without make-up, I'd felt that he was cheating. You can't be Zwarte Piet without a painted face. Hence, it's not about blackness; it's about the costume, that should look a certain way.

I doubt this is going to help, because foreign culture and traditions are OMG scary!!111!!. But who knows.

LaPrintemp said...

Is it wrong that I just want chocolate cake now? *shrug*

B.Reijns said...


Just a little addition to the string of comments here. If the posts explaining the origins of 'Sinterklaas' sound a little confusing, it's because technically they are all correct :P
That's what you get for old traditional celebrations I suppose.

Officially, Sinterklaas is "Saint Nicholas"; 'Sint' being a derivative of 'Saint' and 'Klaas' is to 'Nicholas' as Bob is to Robert.

Saint Nicholas is the Bishop of Myra, which is located in Turkey. ( Historical info:,_Bishop_of_Myra )

Like it says in the document, he has a reputation of secret gift-giving. Most of the stories around him start by Saint Nicholas leaving food and money in the homes of needy families.

As far as 'Piet' goes, they are either Moors he defeated, Moorish children he rescued or Demons he subdued. In all cases, though, 'Piet' voluntarily offered his services to Nicholas after he did whatever it is the stories say. And yes, he's the one who helps determine who is deserving of gifts and who isn't.
My parents (I'm Dutch, no surprise there) used to tell me about 3-4 months before December that I should behave, because Sinterklaas already sent Piet ahead to check up on all the children. The idea of being taken to Spain used to be something of a 'Yay! Permanent vacation!' memory to me, but more motivating was that Piet would tell Sint to skip our home and not give any presents if I misbehaved.

Risking a loooooong story, I would like to part with my 'favourite' legend on Saint Nicholas, as written by the Brothers Grimm. I'll try to keep it short.

Once upon a time there were three children that were fed up with their homes and decided to run away. As things go, the children got lost in the woods and come nightfall were miserable, scared and hungry.
Finally, just after midnight, they found a home on a lonely road. The home belonged to a butcher who gracefully let the children inside and gave them something to eat...
However, that night the butcher snuck into the rooms of the sleeping children and killed all three of them, hacked them up and put them in a barrel of brine to pickle.

Three days later there was another knock on the butchers door and when he opened there was none other than Saint Nicholas standing there. The Saint said that he had taken a wrong turn on his way to a nearby town and hoped the butcher could spare him a bed for the night. Of course, faced with a Saint, the butcher had absolutely no problems of giving up his own bed if need be and even made a grand meal for Nicholas.

After the food was eaten, the butcher asked Saint Nicholas if it was all to his liking.
"Dear butcher," Saint Nicholas said, "the meal you gave me was absolutely wonderful. But I have to admit... the kind of meat that I love to eat most comes from children and has been pickled in brine for three days."

The butcher, realising that he's been cornered and caught now, goes completely pale and jumps out the window and is never seen again. After the man had left, Saint Nicholas went to the barrel with the children in it, tapped his fingers against the rim three times and helped the completely unharmed kids out of the barrel.
He brought them back home and the kids promised never to run away from home again.

-B. Reijns

B.Reijns said...

I also realise that I have been completely superfluous with my comment after the link, since the wiki article went on outside my screen with everything I said as well ;D

Unknown said...

That Flight of the Concords quote is one of my favorites. Right along with "And then Alby began to cry great dragon tears...which as we all know, turn into JELLYBEANS!" Isn't it great when you can get a quote to fit sooo perfectly?

jackie31337 said...

Ok, this is an honest question and not just an attempt to start a flame war....

What about other instances of dressing up as and/or behaving in a way stereotypical of a particular group? For example, do any women find it offensive when men dress in drag and act in an over-the-top stereotypical way? What about Saint Patrick's Day when everyone pretends to be Irish, dresses like a leprechaun, and drinks too much green beer? Why is blackface considered so much more offensive than these other examples?

ksaldria said...

Huh. Last I heard Black Peter was like Santa's evil twin who beats bad children with sticks and then tosses them in his basket or sack and drags them down to hell. I'd never seen him portrayed as literally black and always assumed the name had something to do with the fact that he was supposed to be a devil character.

This post actually makes me want to go all history major on this topic and research the tradition in depth. Quite fascinating how the custom evolved if you ask me.

Mar Calpena said...

Hey! Are the Dutch going to ship ALL their juveniles to Spain... Now isn't that offensive?! (and dangerous for us Spaniards!) :b

Anonymous said...

It's very funny to see a cake from te supermarket I buy my groceries (never the cakes though ;)).

I am Dutch and I just need to say: Sinterklaas is in fact not Santa Claus. After december the 6th all Sinterklaas decorations are removed from the storewindows and Santa Claus (we call him Kerstman) flies in with his reindeer and Elves. So we have the whole Santa Claus madness around Christmas, just after the Sinterklaas weirdness :)

Genvissa said...

Thank you to those who have pointed out that Bert the Chimney Sweep isn't referencing Sesame Street. You make me hopeful for humanity.

Jen - the not so subtle sarcasm which accompanies the reference is fantastic and makes me sad for all those people who didn't get it.

Cynthia B. said...

I'm Dutch and would like to set the record straight on some points.....
First of all, Santa Claus and Sinterklaas are two entirely different entities. Sinterklaas is a Spanish saint and his side kick Zwarte Piet is actually (according to stories) a Spanish chimneysweeper.
Second, the "bad" children are put into bags and taken back to Spain, I'm not sure where the hitting with sticks idea comes from.....
People here aren't offended by the make up and I'm truely puzzeled why others take so much offence. Some traditions should be put to sleep, but a tradition that doens't hurt anyone.... Hmmmm, seems a bit wierd to make such a fuss imo.
Ah well, maybe because I see this every year it isn't as big a deal to me as it is to others.
I do wish some people would be a little bit more open minded about these things, instead of yelling RACISM.... Funnily enough, usually Americans seem to take the most offence to this.

Kate K said...

I'm not one of the earlier commenters about this only because I read the comments before jumping in, but...Whether Jen meant Bert the chimney sweep from Mary Poppins or not, that particular cake does look a lot like the muppet named Ernie. Makes the intended allusion difficult to discern. I'd have gotten it if there'd been a supercalafragalisticexpialidoucious or a reference to a spoonful of sugar.

HellboundAlleee said...

Black Peter is black because of the relatively short tradition of devils being St Nick's "helper." "Helper" in that they are the ones who beat the children and/or bring them to hell.

If you're interested, check out Knecht Ruprecht and ESPECIALLY the KRAMPUS. The Krampus is a full-on devil, and was a beloved children's toy in Victorian Germany.

If you think this is offensive, remember that it was the Christmas Man, or Santa Claus or whatever pre-Nicholas deity) who used to have the duty of beating children. I believe the devils accompanying him were supposed to take the scary out of Santa.

For the record, I think Krampuses are just neat, and I think that the horror and squeaminshness is just American Lack of curiosity about the WHOLE WORLD OUT THERE outside our back doors.

Aren't people the least bit curious about how come we have a Santa Claus and Elves tradition? If we dig a little deeper, St Nicholas is not all She Wrote.

Anonymous said...

You think this is creepy and racist? Look up the Dutch politician "Geert Wilders". While little children go out in the cold November weather and wait for hours at the harbour for Sint and Piet to show up, the freaky blond politician wants to get every non-Western human to get out of the country. Are the children racist for expecting a black guy from Spain to come to their town?

As a Dutch visitor I understand what you're trying to say, but in my childhood memories Zwarte Piet was just a nice guy who was handing out candy and toys and loved to make children happy.

Although, the melting muppet is horrible.

Anonymous said...

After reading the "chocolate babies" story it sooo reminded me of almost the same experience!!!

I don't know if you still can, but you could buy these black licorice candy babies and one of my really old aunts gave me some and called them "negro" (she used a more politically incorrect term) babies. I was only 5 at the time and had no clue what that word meant, so I go to school with these candies and I tell my friends that "I'm eating ****** babies!" Boy was my teacher shocked and did my parents also have some explaining to do!!!

Anonymous said...

I have lived in both Holland and Germany and I can tell you they are WAY more racist than in the US. On one hand, they would be high-and-mighty self-righteous about how bad the US was with its past Jim Crow laws, etc., but on the other hand they would come out with incredible stereotyping that you would never hear in the US. Their anti-racism is definitely of the "paternalistic" type. Even scientists and academics I talked to would privately give me all kinds of stereotypes.

Anonymous said...

Long time reader, first time commenter.

Being a swede, we have our own share of stereotype sweets (you might guess what chocolate balls used to be called when I grew up), not to mention a lot of branding on liquorice or the 'china puffs' rice snack. Some have stayed, some have gone but I think the important thing to remember here is that of course people have the right to be offended. The icons might not have come from outright racism, but they certainly come from the prejudiced notion that the world looked this way, with the benevolent white man helping the more primitive cultures. Both 'manifest destiny' and 'the white man's burden' ( ) were a part of that. Sure, things like that might seem very far from people's minds at the moment, but just look at what the press writes about Afghanistan in particular, and you'll realize it's not that different.

That being said, the way to deal with things like this is not to refrain from talking about them, it's pulling them out in the light, making fun of them and realize that they mean so different things to different people. Just because something is your cherished childhood memory doesn't mean it's not iffy to others without that context. That being said, I happily still eat my little ( ) snacks and try to focus on the far bigger and more important prejudice I see every day in real life. In my view the REALLY scary thing if is people stopped posting things like this for fear of offending someone. Just because it is pushed under the table doesn't mean it's not there.

Also, the cakes are truly wrecktastic.

Jenniffer said...

Hey Jen (and you too John!!),

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Since I'm Dutch I've grown up with Sinterklaas and Piet...
And so are my children...

Every year the arrival of Sinterklaas (het arrives on a steamship from Spain) is broadcasted live on national television. We even have a daily newsprogramm from the arrival to Dec 5 (about 3 weeks).

Everyday we can watch what Sint and all of the Piets are doing. Yes, all the Piets! There are hundreds! Amongst whom are a Head Piet, a House Piet and (my personal favorite) Sorry Piet.

And John (hubby of Jen) I doubt our 'president' will one day declare Zwarte Piet offensive. We don't have a president...

Instead we have a queen. And since our crown prince is married to an Argentinian woman (of the choclate covered faces fame) I doubt we will ever see the day...

(another fun Dutch tradition: Queen's Day)

john (the hubby of Jen) said...

To Anonoymous and Embarrassed and a couple others,

We posted these cakes today fully aware that some would be upset by them. But we also knew that there would be an open discussion on the message boards and that most of our awesome readers could handle this.

In my opinion, these truly are cake wrecks. They seem quite racist to me but I am American and I was trained to think that way. Our awesome Dutch readers have responded and many of them have incredibly fond memories of this tradition, going so far as to say that a black man playing the part would make them feel cheated since he needs to have a sooty face.

My point is that we brought up a touchy subject because sometimes it needs to be brought up. Ignoring racism doesn't make it go away.

Lastly, if you don't want to read Cake Wrecks anymore because of this, I understand. I really do. But it helps no one to shut yourself off from everything you find slightly offensive. Become part of the discussion and you might be the one who brings about change.


john (the hubby of Jen) said...

Anonymous 9:20,

Yeah whoops, sorry about that. The Netherlands have a queen. I should have known as my in-laws lived there for a bit.

On another note, you didn't actually read through all the comments, did you?! That's pretty cool.


Morgi said...

Glad we've decided that American-bashing is much more productive than, say, discussion. I'm proud to be lumped in with all the freaked-out people here.


Anonymous said...

John: Seriously, the comments are by far the most interesting thing when it comes to this post. First time I've bothered to read the all, and even worse... wait for more *hangs head*

Molly said...

6 to 8 black men by David Sedaris- about this very phenomenon!

Unknown said...

I'm Dutch, and I can truthfully say that as a child I never connected the beloved character of Black Pete with the skin colour of my black friends. Zwarte Piet was just Zwarte Piet - an iconic guy who just happened to have a black face, not a representation of real black people. (I even remember feeling slightly annoyed when the Pieten who visited my school had been painted a more 'realistic' dark brown rather than pitch black. That just didn't look like Black Pete at all.)

Please also bear in mind that our history - and, as a result, our racial tensions/sensitivities - is rather different than yours. What Europeans historically called Moors were actually Berbers and Arabs from North-Africa, who have ruled Spain and Portugal for centuries. Other parts of Europe have been part of the Ottoman Empire for a long time. In other words, 'black' people actually entered the European consciousness long before the onset of imperialism and slave trade - because they have actually ruled here and, for a large part, coexisted peacefully with the 'whites'.
This means that even a Black Pete whose cultural origin is 'Moorish', and came from either Turkey (where the historical bishop Nicholas of Myra lived) or Spain (where the mythical Sinterklaas is from), does not have anything to do with (sub-Saharan) African slaves, but rather with a misrepresentation of an Arab by people who only knew of these Moors by hearsay.

So, neither is Black Pete's origin a racist relic of slave trade, nor do today's kids feel that he represents the non-white races in any way.

Apart from all that, and I mean this as a serious question, what could be racist about the concept of Black Pete? (Sure, I can imagine that people feel offended by the caricatural way he's represented on the cakes, but that's a whole different matter, one that has to do with cake-decorating skills as much as with anything else.) What is racist about a black guy working for a white guy? Or about a black guy writing funny poems and handing out candy to kids? Black Pete is cool, funny, kids dress up like him and want to be him. Where is the racism?
And please don't react by sighing at my ignorance and saying 'She's so brainwashed by tradition, she can't even see it anymore'. It's a serious question. If you can convince me, good for you.

Oh, and people? We have a queen here, not a president.

Nookleerman said...

You guys should really watch David Sedaris, he does something that has something to do with this! It's soooo funny!?! Also, see if you can get to youtube and watch 6-8 Black Men. If you liked that, you'll love 6 to 8 black men by David Sedaris. What a riot!

To Embarrassed: Get a clue. If Jen and John didn't bring this stuff up, it would still be going on. It's not like they're shouting "WHITE POWER" and telling everybody to go out and buy a Zwarte Piet doll to beat up. They're bringing to light something that not one of my Dutch friends had the guts to share with me, because they all knew how wrong this tradition was. With out this site, I wouldn't be able to ridicule my friends mercilessly about their heritage, so thank you John and Jen. Thank you.

B. Reijns...Holy freakin crap man.

Blackbeard said...

Girl6; I have to say your example here is illogical and crystallized the whole issue for me:

"Most people would be horrified if cakes depicting caricatures of WWII concentration camp survivors [...] were made into a cake."

A more apt comparison would be someone seeing a Mexican Dia De Los Meurtos cake depicting a skeleton, and being outraged at how insensitive it was toward holocaust survivors - or for that matter, anorexics.

These cakes may remind you of something you find distasteful, but note well that they are not depictions of that.

It is in your head, and I'm unsympathetic.

Unknown said...

Oh, and I second the remark about Geert Wilders, the guy who wants to kick all Muslims out of the country and may well become our next Prime Minister*. Now there's some Dutch racism (OK, discrimination based on religion, technically, but it kind of overlaps) for y'all to decry...

* I still don't know what to do if that really happens - I'll most likely feel like emigrating, but it's probably better to join the resistance.

Anonymous said...

While I don't think they went about it in the right way, I do see some sense in the comments that say it's not really necessary to be offended by these cakes, or the tradition. If I'm not mistaken, Europeans don't really have the same history with "racist" imagery like we Americans do (things like the "mammy" character, bright lips on impossibly dark faces, etc.) Because they don't have that, it's almost silly for us to think that these images are "racist", intentionally or otherwise. We consider them to be racist because they look like racist ads and artwork from OUR past. But that is not part of this country's past. Therefore, it isn't racist. Tacky and strange, surely, but not racist.

Anonymous said...

I like that you get freaked out about posting something that folks might find racially offensive but you still feel the need to censor out the boobies. Oh how America sucks! We can see horrors and racism and death but NO boobs.

Capability Bowes said...

Oh for chrissakes. They're CAKES.

Cakes are not racist. People are racist.

Making a cake look like a black person is not a rascist act.

Not naking a such a cake because you are worried that some people would be offended by it is the worst form of patronisation.


Capability Bowes said...

Oh, and before I forget.

I didnt read any posts criticising the Leprechaun cakes for being racist against Irish people.

So apparently its not at all racist if the person/tradition depicted in cake is white. Only if they're black?

Riiiiiiight, its all much clearer now.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious post and an awesome reference to the greatest racist dragon of all times, Albi!
"Get off my tail, you'll get it drity!"

Skwerl said...

Seems to me, the hero in this is Zwarte Piet. He rewards the good, punishes the wicked- and performs a valuable service by clearing the streets of the Netherlands free of naughty children and setting them loose in Spain.
Hooray Zwarte Piet!

Anonymous said...

"Their Santa" looks like the Pope because he is a SAINT. Even Santa Claus was originally a Saint. St. Nick? Santa, Saint? Get it?

I think Americans need to quit bashing other countries' traditions, culture and history.

Nonna said...

OMGosh !
I am sitting here in disbelief...and I have a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach.

This is one post I won't be revisiting any time soon, (once was enough and brave of you to post, BTW)

I have a friend who was born and raised in Holland and I'm going to grill her a little on the background story on this tradition for sure !

MK said...

Everything in the Sedaris story everyone has posted is absolutely true - I heard the story and immediately asked my Dutch friend who confirmed every detail, right down to the trip to Spain in a sack. (interestingly enough, we were in Spain at the time of the conversation, so I had to ask her what she had done the previous year that was bad enough to get kidnapped by St. Nick). She even showed me some Svarte Piet candies called (I kid you not) "[n-word] kisses". Sometimes Europe is just to hard for me to figure out.

Sjak (from the Netherlands) said...

Well, I'm 100% Dutch and I get the way this whole Zwarte Piet thing may seem very weird to say the least, if not outright offensive to other countries. But then, don't most countries have their own tradition that foreigners frown upon? I do not believe this whole thing to be racist at all, never grew up thinking that black people were scary, child snatching crazies who worked as slaves for an old white guy with a beard. Believe me, when my parents were young this was very much the case, mostly because there weren't very many people of color (any color) living in the Netherland, so a black man was thought of as something of a storybook character. Nowadays Holland is a very multicultural country and children grow up believing that Zwarte Piet is the helper of Sinterklaas who happens to look all black because of the soot in the chimneys he goes down to deliver the presents. Yes, when this whole tradition started (many, many years ago, way before Santa was invented) it was quite a racist thing because of the ignorance of people (who had ofcourse never actually seen a black person) but it has evolved and like I said, kids here certainly don't grow up anymore associating Zwarte Piet with something to be scared of and really do not associate Zwarte Piet with actual black people.
But I do get that this is hard to understand for people who did not grow up with this.

Erm... anyway, I did love the post and those crappy cakes made me laugh really hard! Especially the melting muppet. Never thought Albert Heijn would sell such utter CRAP! Next december 5th I'm checking out the nearest AH supermarket to see if I can find another "beauty" like that.

BTW John; I don't think our Prime Minister (we don't have a president, we have prime minister and a queen!) reads Cakewrecks coz he's just too darn boring.

Oh, and believe you me, the whole Zwarte Piet thing (racist or not) is and always will be an issue here, but the thing is that most Dutch people feel it's an innocent childrens tradition (in nooooo way comparable to the Spanish traditions of bull fighting BTW). And yes, that also includes many Dutch people of color.

Oh, and last but not least, the white thing on the first cake is not his beard, it's a big fringy collar ;)

Anonymous said...

Oh my GOD, get OVER it. I have many close friends who are black, so when I'm out somewhere and someone assumes that I'm racist, it really ticks me off. If you cut me in line at the grocery store, don't turn around and say that I only told you to move because you're black. If you do something nasty to me, I don't care about what color your skin is. I'm not a racist, so stop assuming that everyone is a racist. It's rediculous. People are SO sensitive. Get over yourselves.

WorldWithinReach said...

I read your post today, and then I laughed until I cried a single tear, which turned into a jellybean all the colors of the rainbow... =)

(It is more fun over here.)

Melissa said...

Heh. I had read about Zwarte Piet, but I had always pictured him as a dark-complectioned, sooty-faced, but ethnically-Dutch-looking man. You learn something new every day.

Maaike said...

Much as I love CakeWrecks, I confess I do have a problem with this post. Sinterklaas happens to be my favourite holiday of the year, filled with fun and excitement. (Never with cake though, that part stays weird.) And possibly I am just a weird Dutch woman that can't properly understand outsiders' perspectives on this. But at the same time, I sincerely doubt any of you 'outsiders' have a clue. You all seem to be stuck on the fact that oh noes, here's a black man subservient to a white man. Perhaps that was once true. These days I feel it's more a white man that happens to employ multiple coloured people. If you could see the nationally televised festive arrival of Sinterklaas each year, you'd see that it's enacted more like very capable hard working Black Petes that run the show and help the friendly old man in the right direction.

I confess I'd never heard the soot explanation before. I thought it was simply because he's Moorish; Moorish invasion of Spain, Sinterklaas actually living in Spain, etc. He usually wears a white fluffy collar (see picture 2), so wouldn't that get dirty in the chimneys?

I truly don't believe there's any racist part to this tradition. Or not anymore, since I cannot knowledgably speak to the early origins of the tradition. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are both dearly beloved icons of Dutch culture.

Hyena Overlord said...

marybt said "If I'm ot mistaken, Pete also kicks bad little boys and girls. I am so not making that up."

Then he can't be all bad.

Why to wreckie faces always look like muppets?

wv: filli a little girl horse*LOL*

El Comodoro said...

I just think it's comical that people can get "offended" by theoretically offending some nebulous "other" group.

And I LOVED that I read this post on the exact 10th anniversary of my run with the bulls in old Pamplona.

To you RWTB haters out there: There are some things in life that aren't meant to be intelligent. And would I do it again? Yep.

Thanks for posting that, Jen!

Unknown said...

Odd how people think tradition is beyond reproach. I suppose bullfighting and cock fighting isn't animal cruelty, either. Thank goodness the "It's tradition!" excuse didn't fly back when human sacrifice went out of vogue.

Hilarious post, and I love how educational it is! Can't say I like being proven wrong in my idea that I'd never see blackface in my lifetime, but ignorance certainly isn't preferable.

Dea said...

I don't think the fact that "Santa" has a helper who is of Moorish descent is where people are offended or insulted - but more in the actual depiction. I would have to say the big, red or pink lips might be the culprit here. Yes, we have "white" face cookies - but their lips aren't made in the same way that insulting comedy portrayed such a person for decades.

I do love that you ventured here - it's fabulous! The wrecktastic nature of the entire thing is hilarious. You can be offended AND laugh at it at the same time...

Anna Mooney said...

I remember taking a trip to the Netherlands a few years ago, at Christmastime, and running across a local celebration featuring St Nicholas and Black Pete. My Dutch friend could not understand why I was horrified, and I had to explain to her that blackface in America is... frowned upon.

Cultural differences FTW.

Anonymous said...

To another "anonymous":
don't assume that Europeans aren't racist because they don't have our past. In my experience, they are more racist precisely because they haven't had that past, of actually interacting with Africans for hundreds of years. So they have much more blatant stereotypes and sense of cultural superiority-- heck, they even feel superior to Americans and other Europeans! Ask a Dutch person about a German sometime.

Dea said...

"this kinda stuff seems to go over a bit better in countries that don't have America's er.. spotty racial history..."

Yeah, because the Dutch ever did anything like, say, capture and sell people into slavery or anything....they just never had to live with the aftermath, eh?

lauren said...

Well, I'm not Dutch, but peope here have also refered to the German tradition of Knecht Ruprecht, so I wanted to clear that one up. Knecht Ruprecht is not black, he really is only soot covered and dirty. He helps Saint Nicholas (who is not the same as Santa, we get our christmas gifts from baby Jesus). But when kids get dressed up as the three kings on the sixth of december, one of them usually does dress up as the "moore king" - blackface included. So we are no better in that respect.

Some postrs have rightly pointed out that our history with racism is a different one than that of the US. I think this is one of the reasons why many people here do not understand the inherrennt offensivenes of blackface- they have no idea of the history it has in the States. That history doesn't exist here, so they see it as just people dressing up and trying to look like the character they are portaying.

However, while we do not share that particuar history, many Europeans love to ignore their own parts in the horrific things that happened and are still happening to people of colour - not using the term African American because there are a lot of black people in Europe who are obviousely not American.

Acting as if slavery was merey an American problem is ignorant of the facts and our historic responsibilities. And living up to those responsibilities includes looking at our traditions and asking ourselves if they contain racist stereotypes.

The issue of blackface is a special one because that history really doesn't exist here, but just because many people here might not understand why Americans find it offensive, doesn't mean we shouldn't listen to their explanations. And then maybe change something, even if we do not share that particular history. We did not have the minstrel shows, so many people here don't know why blackface is offensive, and why it is not the same as dressing up as a woman/ an Irish. I honestly think that lack of knowledge is one of the main reasons why many responses here don't get the inherent offensiveness that is obvious to Americans. But just because we don't have that knowledge doesn't mean we can't get it. We can learn from the mistakes of others, no?

The rasism-debate in Europe may be a very different one, focussing on different issues, mainly because of the crimes committed by my country and those who went along with it, but that does not give us the right to take away others outrage as "just overly sesitive".

We get offended when Americans throw the term Nazi around (Grammar Nazi, Food Nazi etc)without any understanding of what it means to us to be called a Nazi. We expect them to think about why this could be offensive. Then we sure as hell need to do the same when others are offended by something we do. Getting all "It's just traditon/ not meant to be offensive" ignores the fact that something can be offensive without intent. People can say racist things without meaning to be racist.

If an African American ( or anyone, really) is offended by the tradition of Zwarte Piet, than we should at least listen to their explanations and not get defensive pefore we even know why they feel that way. And maybe explaining that we have no history of backface will make it a little ess offensive- but if it doesn't, than that person has every right to still be offended.

Sorry for the long reply, I just felt that the inherrent offensivenes of blackface and the (potential, depending on the story) offensiveness of the origin of Zwarte Piet are two different issues. And many people in Europe don't understand the former because we don't know about the history.

junewilliams7 said...

I have just read 258 comments. John and Anne Marie, you are heroes!

lauren said...

@ Jen or John

Maybe you could post a link to an expanation of blackface for those readers wo are not from the US and have never heard of the whole horrible thing? That might make it easier for them to understand why Americans- of all ethnic backgrounds- are offended by this idea. It really does seem to me like they get hung up on whether the story is offensive simply because it doesn't even occur to them that the blackface itself is such a big issue

Unknown said...

I wanted to thank Liz for posting this link:

I found it very interesting, and I would like to agree that those who are quick to say "Not Racist!" should read it. America has been confronted and challenged for her racial insensitivity in regards to the black community, which I think has helped us to further improve our race relations in that area at a faster rate than what is required of countries in which there isn't such a large voice of dissent. I've noticed this is true of any population that isn't forced to deal with certain groups. The further North I go in the United States, the less tolerant people seem to be of Mexicans, while states such as Texas seem much more racist against blacks than states like Georgia. Exposures seems to be the key, and I can well imagine that a place like the Netherlands has not yet had enough exposure to get to the point where their understanding is better evolved.

Ayanna said...

For some reason, I am reminded of the Neil Gaiman short story "Nicholas Was":

I am never sure which is more entertaining, people telling me I should be offended, or people telling me to stop being offended. John and Jen, you have my support.

"I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." ~ Voltaire

lauren said...

And I just realised that my own comment (unintetionally) made it sound as if we are somehow better than the US for not having had the mistrel shows with blackface. That's not at all what I meant. We may not have had the shows, but there stereotipical, derogatory depiction of people of colour was present in Europe as well. And while it is slowly being judged as the atrocity that it is, we did not have the blackface discussion to make everyone that aware of the issue.

As I said, the racism-discussion here ususally focuses on other aspects, as anti-semitism and anti Sinti- and Roma ressentiment was what cost so many lives.
And yes, because we like to pretend that what European countries did in the countries they appropriated during the hights of their imperialism wasn't directly linked to what happened later to slaves in the US and wasn't based on the same ideas of superiority of the white man.

But while not having the same awareness may be an explanation, it is not an excuse to contiue upholding the stereotype after being made aware of its existence and what it signifies.

Liz said...

Because I'm not going to read 259 comments (it's midnight and I've had a few drinks)...

I'm just going to say "Chuck marathon" - Jen you are SOOOOOO cool! I love Chuck - as long as you are talking about the BuyMore Employee who is also a super spy!


sarah jane said...

a Chuck marathon is always a welcome diversion... :) he is so dang cute!

j.l. said...

I've read all the comments too and found a few things very interesting:

1. America-bashing is fine but American offense at racist custom is asinine, apparently.

2. I don't understand how ANYONE could find candy called ****** kisses not racist.

3. Americans are terrible because they had slaves. But the Dutch that kidnapped and traded these slaves have some sort of mysterious moral high ground because they didn't use them themselves.

Anonymous said...

WTF! Its still interesting how somethings are still around.

Teri said...

But surely saying it's racially insensitive simply because it involves black people is racist within itself? I personally don't see the offense in this... somebody please point it out to me?

R said...

Jen, thank you for inspiring this fascinating conversation about race relations in an international context. (Who would have thought you could say that about a hilarious blog about cakes?)

I especially appreciated the comments by Rattsu and Lauren. I thought they did a great job of answering people's questions about why this might be offensive without bashing Europe or the US.

Now I'm off to my swamp to gnaw on some raccoons. (See comments by Capability Bowes if you don't know what I'm talking about).

Capability Bowes said...

Leprechaun cake anyone?

Anonymous said...

i love cake wrecks!!!! you guys keep me going, i mean on a normal day i can see cc wrecks and fondant wrecks but today i get to see humanity wrecks!!! like so many before me i could try to at length to express how wrong this is, but why bother? the wreck is not in the icing it's in the heart.

Lynx said...

As much as I agree with you about the inconvenience of so many insensitive traditions, I don't think everybody is free of judgement.

I am Spanish and I feel very sad when other countries think themselves free of judging mine because all the bullfighting stuff. I don't aprove it, and that puts me among other millions of spaniards that doesn't aprove it either. We are defined too often by our traditions, which is natural, I concede that, but unfair.

On the other hand, I don't see why eating "black people cakes" is worst than eating "white people cakes". I mean, there are Santa cakes, Superman cakes (let's forget about Super Sam xDD) or even Mother's Day cakes that represent, well... a mother xD. You know when you bake them that you are making a mere symbol, something funny and tasty, you don't think "Oh my!! I'm eating a white person here!!". I think the idea behind "africanitos" is plainly the same. Argentinians are not eating "black people" they're eating a traditional symbol, something that is a mere cake with a funny face and tastes great.

In the Netherlands they do exactly the same you Americans do when you make a Santa cake. Yes, the guy from Overseas is black, so what? Is the same idea. Look for racist pretentions in whichs is just the innocent gesture of making a cake out of a traditional character is a bit twisted, I think.

I am not accusing anyone here, but I just want to state that nobody is free of judgement. America has a long, long, looooong history with racism in it's 200 years of existence, and it's own stupid traditions (I could start with all the free gun possessing stuff and Death sentence here, but I won't) so let's not make a mountain from a grain of sand, as we say in Spain.

I am sorry for this boring statement but I had to say it. I love this blog and I laugh so much reading it, but there are some things than deserve a longer and deeper discussion and should be left apart.

Well, thankyou for your work and congrats for this blog! I soooooo love it.
Bye bye!

Zwolsche Diva said...

Yeah, another Dutchie in the.. uh.. Blog.

As soon as I saw this topic and considered the American point of view, I thought you were very brave..

First of all..
I had a blast reading all the comments! I did indeed read all of them.. You've got some decent readers, CW!

Second.. WE ARE NOT GERMAN! The Netherlands inhabited by the DUTCH may be confusing, but not the same.. I already discovered this mix up when I worked abroad..

Thirdly.. Santa en Sinterklaas are two very different characters. So yes, our Santa looks weird. Because he is not Santa!

Fourthly.. You will get physically injured by calling someone coloured?
Sounds like some people need to start looking at people, not at words..

Fifthly... Zwarte Piet in modern Holland is meant as a kind and clownesque person who entertains children, helps Sinterklaas and hands out candy..

I could think of some more, but I won't.

Unknown said...


"Americans are terrible because they had slaves. But the Dutch that kidnapped and traded these slaves have some sort of mysterious moral high ground because they didn't use them themselves."

I read all the comments as well, some of them multiple times, and I do wonder where you got this from. You're likely referring to the person who claimed that there were no slaves in the Netherlands. S/he, however, did NOT deny that the Dutch were notorious slave traders; neither did s/he imply that the fact that Dutch people themselves did not own black slaves made them somehow morally superior to the Americans who did. The only point said commenter was making was that black people are simply not linked to slavery in the Dutch general consciousness.

Do read what others say before you feel all offended, please.

Also, just to repeat my point for everyone: the origin of Black Pete is not linked to slavery or oppression in any way. Black Pete is WAY older, and is technically an Arab (if you go for the non-sooty version of the story).

So will you please all stop condemning the Black Pete tradition as an obvious sign of our total lack of remorse about our slave trading days? It's not related, people.

And for the record: I deeply wish for our government to officially apologise to the people of Suriname for our country's role in the horrors of slave trade. I'm not denying anything or trying to brush over the ugly parts of our history - in fact, I feel that by not issuing an official apology, we allow them to live on. And I know a lot of Dutch people who feel the same way (except for the government, really).

But Zwarte Piet simply does not have anything to do with it.

Anonymous said...

Check out the "Africancito" cyclops in the back! At least give the man an eyepatch or something.

Lynn said...

I'm from Belgium so I also know the tradition of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. I think an important thing to remember is that it's not MEANT to be racist at all. Nobody means any harm with it. Children (and adults) love Zwarte Piet, nowadays he is the good natured, goofy, loveable sidekick of the more serious and scary Sinterklaas. Zwarte Piet hands out candy and gives you presents.

I really don't know anyone who associated Zwarte Piet with actual people of colour. He's just a sidekick who happens to be black of skin (because he's Moorish or because of soot, as you can read there are several explanations for that).

I agree the cakes look exaggerated and more like a caricature, but that's what cartoonish cakes do. A cake of Sinterklaas would look nothing like the real thing, either.

I think it's sad that America has a history which makes innocent traditions such as Sinterklaas seem racist. That really is not the point of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.

I know the Netherlands and Belgium are not innocent when it comes to racism, not in the past and not now. Nowadays racism is more aimed at people of foreign countries, especially Muslims. I don't know anyone who's prejudiced against black people.

I really like that the word verification for this post is 'mingles'!

Jeanine said...

Don't know if it has been mentioned already, but in the Netherlands we have Sinterklaas AND Santa Claus. Both of them. Cakes and presents twice!

Oh, and Zwarte Piet is actually a nice guy. Him punishing kids who have been bad may have been tradition, but for years all he has been doing is being nice and giving out candy. Lots of it.

NoeWi said...

@ Capability
I'm black. I'm offended.
Its disgusting and its justified for anyone with any true morals to be offended.
We have had to deal with stupidity TOO much TOO often.
Funny, if I made a cake with a snaggle toothed white person with a receding hairline and a potbelly holding his Catholic cross in one hand,a KKK hood in the other and a Palin for President t-shirt, I bet you wouldnt be able to find the horrified humor in that

Anonymous said...

I cant believe I recommended this site to my friends. Never again.
It wasnt funny at all.
No matter what he was supposed to be. Slavery wasnt funny.
Whats next Auschwitz victims pulling the sleigh??
WTH Cakewrecks! That was a really stupid decision u made

Zwolsche Diva said...

Oh yeah, Geert Wilders.. That guy needs to have a cake wrecked for him..

Seriously, I do not know what he is driving at with his political statements.

Anonymous said...

The equivalent of Black Peter in, I think, Germany is Krampus. He's sort of the dark side of St. Nicholas and he is the one who punishes naughty girls and boys. Doesn't mean he can't have a fine ride though.

Bruce T.

Arwen said...

OK, I'm Dutch, and I grew up with this tradition, and I don't think I ever even connected zwarte Piet with black people. I understand that it's shocking to see from a US point of view, with a lot of really intense racial tension really close in history, but over here that is just different, and I have never sensed any malice or derision in zwarte Piet's existence or portrayal.
In fact Piet is really cool, runs the show for silly old forgetful Sinterklaas, and gives you candy. During the big arrival event you'll see hundreds of kids dressing up as Piet, because Piet is AWESOME. Nobody wants to dress up like the old fogey in red!

Does that make it okay? Probably not. It's not PC and I doubt it ever will be. And those cakes are horrible just on principle. Fugly!
I'm just trying to bring across that while yes, this tradition features a black man (Moorish according to tradition) as assistant of Sinterklaas, through the eyes of Dutch tradition this does not carry the negative connotation it will have as seen through American eyes.

Arwen said...

Dea said:

Yeah, because the Dutch ever did anything like, say, capture and sell people into slavery or anything....they just never had to live with the aftermath, eh?

Nobody will deny that, but it is much, MUCH less recent, and therefore embedded in the Dutch common conscious in a completely different way.

Unknown said...

David Sedaris has a short story on this strange, strange tradition. I believe it's called "Six to Eight Black Men" as that's the number of black helpers Sinterklaas has. It's an estimation.
Anyway, if Pete's black because he's covered in soot, what's with the gold hoop earrings, Dutch people?

Andie said...

OK, so I stopped reading the comments after about 20.
I don't find this offensive...uncomfortably funny, yes. HOWEVER what I really want to know is how you make your mango mojitos....

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything wrong with you posting this. You make it clear that you think perpetuating racist imagery is wrong. If anything, not talking about it and pushing it under a rug in order to be PC is wrong. These things are better when they're confronted and talked about rationally. And finding humor in blatantly bigoted behavior, I believe, is the best way to acknowledge that these cakes and traditions are absolutely ridiculous and a bad choice.

Cole said...

Regardless of whether the traditions have a racist origin (which is not the same as being racist NOW), I'm disappointed that a blog about CAKE that I enjoyed for so long felt the need to become political and denigrate a culture they obviously don't care to fully understand.

Arwen said...

I was just rereading some comments and thinking that racism really comes down to intention, not to imagery. Zwarte Piet is, certainly in the last few decades, a positive figure in the tradition. There is no malice or derision in his (or her) portrayal. Therefore to my eyes it is not racist.

It may LOOK racist to those who are used to seeing such imagery having racist intention. But that doesn't mean that the intention is irrevokably connected to the imagery outside your own culture.

Anonymous said...

Not that anyone will actually read what I'm saying, seeing the knee-jerk reactions here, but really, delve a little bit deeper into the tradition and you will find:

Black Peter (Zwarte Peter, Zwarte Paiter, Zwarte Piet) was the name used for the devil from before the time Dutch people even knew that black people existed. It goes so far back into tradition that its origins can only be guessed at. The one thing that is certain is that the reason the devil was given a name was because it was bad luck to call upon the devil by using the word devil.

Best academic guess at the moment is that the Zwarte Peter was black because he lurked in shadows and would enter the house by any means possible, and often this was the chimney as the only opening into the house.

Zwarte Piet started off as the embodiment of evil being subdued by good (the church defeating the devil), a tale that stood the church in good stead.

Over the course of many, many years, Zwarte Piet was modeled on moors, which explains his clothing. He used to be portrayed as a decrepit creature overcome by the church (in the shape of Saint Nicholas).

The "blackface" is not blackface. It is a theatrical rendition of the blackness of evil, as embodiment of a creature of the night. NOT as a black human being!

Even more recently Zwarte Piet has involved into an indispensible part of Saint Nicholas' life, as he and the other Pieten ensure that Saint Nicholas doesn't forget a child on that one eve where he rides the roofs on his white horse to drop presents down the chimney.

Zwarte Piet has evolved from being the devil subdued by the church in a time before Dutch people were Dutch as we know it today and even knew there were black people, to a child's greatest friend and the person without whom Saint Nicholas could not do his work on December 5.

Zwarte Piet has nothing whatsoever to do with black people and only marginally something to do with soot.

Peachy said...

love your Albi the Racist dragon reference.

peachy said...

This is kind of like the Texas Councilman who was offended that black holes were called black holes because he was black. The Zwarte cakes have nothing to do with Black people, from what i've read.

just because something that seems racist is brought to the public attention doesn't mean that the message itself is racist. Please read the entire entry before getting on your moral high horse.

Dea said...

It's not Zwarte Piet the character that is so offensive - it's the WAY the cakes are made, HOW he is depicted. If he's "just a moor" or "just dusted with soot," then why the gigantic lips? Why the hair type? THAT is where the "horror" could just possibly be coming from.

And to say that "it happened so long ago" makes it ok, that's bs. I could say the same thing about the holocaust, but I sure am not about to do so. Because it's hurtful to someone.

Heaven forbid people be expected to give a crap about another human's feelings, eh?

I love the Voltaire quote, though, because dang tooting right on that count - I'll disagree, but I sure won't say you're not allowed to believe/act how you want to act. Just don't get offended if your custom is teased/has sarcastic comments made about it. Because that is OUR right as those who don't think it's such a "nice little tradition."

The good old days stunk, just ask the people who had bad eyesight, the plague, or were serfs. That's why sometimes, maybe, JUST MAYBE - "old timey" traditions just might not be what they're cracked up to be.

I just can't understand the argument regarding the slave trading vs having slaves - which is worse. Er, um - they're both horrible parts of our common human history. Period. And it's sad that we, as a human species, haven't learned from history. We still have people who will try to enslave entire groups of people, or steal their land, or control their lives, etc. It's sad.

Angel H. said...

I find it interesting that people who say that Europeans don't have the same "hang-ups" Americans do are always white.

Funny that.

Also, John: Excellent response @ 7/9/09, 9:36!

Sarakim said...

The one thing that keeps bugging me is that everyone seems to think that the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas at Christmas time. That is just completely wrong. Sinterklaas evening takes place on the 5th of December (6th in Belgium) and after that the store windows get redecorated into the Christmas theme. There are a lot of families celebrating both Sinterklaas and the American kind of tradition of Christmas (with presents under the tree).

Sinterklaas arrives by boat in the Netherlands in november. From that time on kids are allowed to put there shoe by the chimney to get some small presents like their initial in chocolate.
On the 5th there is the big celebration of Sinterklaas' birthday and then a big bag of presents will be put in front of the home. Of course the story to the children is that Zwarte Piet has put it there (in fact, most neighbours put it there and knock on the door a few times).
When the kids don't believe in Sinterklaas anymore many families chose to make each other gift 'surprises' in odd shapes with a poem that goes along with it. In that poem you are free to mention the more delicate subjects ;-)

The question about Zwarte Piet being racist or not pops up every year but it never really changes. Attempts to put in multi-coloured Piets never worked and I think we really don't have the same sentiments regarding white people wearing black paint on their faces like Americans do.
I can understand why it's being frowned upon by a lot of people who don't get the tradition and don't know the history of it but I really think that is due to the fact that there are significant differences in cultures concerning subjects such as racism. You can't just look at other cultural practices without taking some consideration towards the tradition and history it stams from.

Dhr. DeLuxe said...

Am I number 300?
Fact: the black people involved in Durch society (Surinamese) don't mind. Nor do I.

kate said...

Just wanted to mention that I just came back from the Netherlands, and while there, I visited the Rijksmuseum, which is mostly closed for renovations right now. However, a small portion of the collection has been arranged into a special exhibit so that the museum can continue to take visitors during this renovation.

What might be the subject of this exhibition? Well, the Dutch conquests of the 17th to 19th century! While I met many, many wonderful Dutch people, I also can't ignore the impression of the country as a whole given by the exhibit, which is:
1) We are unapologetic about our role in slave trade.
2) If we touch something once, we own it (people included).
3) We are very, very proud of the fact that we were an economic superpower due to our willingness to have no scruples whatsoever (steal from indigenous people to sell their goods to the world? awesome! steal the people themselves and sell them into a life of misery? even better! Whaling? Well, we just emptied our ship of it's human cargo, so why the hell not!)

I just- well, as a born and bred Southerner who feels the constant need to apologize for some idiots a hundred and fifty years ago who did atrocious things in the name of economy, I was *appalled* that the Dutch state art museum was so incredibly flippant (and downright callous and offensive at points) about it's role in such a beastly part of world history.

All of this is just to say that after seeing the museum, I am not at all surprised that this is a part of their culture (even though I knew of Schwartz Pete a long before I went there). I am just not at all surprised. I always kind of wondered about the Schwartz Pete tradition- is it just some sort of jovial cultural thing that they don't get, like they just as a whole don't understand how offensive it is? But in truth, from my (albeit limited) experience, it's not that there isn't an understanding of offense- it's flat out pride. And that is sad. And scary.

Anonymous said...

Kate, it helps if you actually know the difference between the badly spelled German you employ and Dutch.

Dea said...

We have St. Nicholas day here in the USA, too, people...SOME of us don't need the constant reminders of the supposed differences. My kids get a small gift on the morning of the 6th of Dec - because St. Nicholas comes the evening of the 5th. Some of us are intelligent and open minded enough to continue the traditions that came along with our ancestors who crossed the ocean - without, of course, continuing the parts we find distasteful....

Anonymous said...

roflol ! We've tried to break the tradition of "black Pete" by introducing "blue Pete" Sinterklaas' helpers were painted blue instead of the regular black and it scared the crap out of all the little kids who were confronted with a guy painted blue with a huge affro and ugly hat on!

Anyway, there has been some discussion weather this tradition should be banned, but 99% of all people thought there's nothing wrong with this tradition.

Suzanne from Holland :)

Rachèl said...

*Loves Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet*

I've never had nightmares about Zwarte Piet, he is a kindervriend (childs friend).

*Usually loves cakewrecks*

*Doesn't love Americans that judge other countries traditions based on there own frame references*

*Had to google 'blackface' never encountered the term before*

My neighbour is from the Netherlands Antilles, she once showed me pictures from her celebrating Sint Nikolaas as a little girl. The Zwarte Pieten were not painted, Sint was portrayed by a black man with his face painted white :D

Why is it better to dress up people with Achondroplasia dwarfism up as elves?

Marlo said...

Oh, The Netherlands. How I love you. I've got a friend whose parents are from there, but I'd never heard about Zwarte Piet! Well, I guess they conform more to North American Christmases now. Hm.

WV: Reedish. Something to put in a woodwind when you've no real reed?

Dea said...

Well, every other country on Earth criticizes the USA for anything we do around here, so why the upset when we question ONE thing the Netherlands does??

Not to mention - have ANY of the people upset by the blackface-looking items CLAIMED to support elves???

courtney said...

Glad to see I am not the only sedaris fan here. Six to eight black men is a good piece of his to start with, but he has TONS of hilarious short stories.

Chica said...

This is soooooo wrong.

*That being said*




*OH, btw, I'm Mexican*


Ellen said...

Actually, having Zwarte Piet isn't as rasist as it looks.
See, what was rasist about blackface isn't white people dressing up like black people, but pretending black people always act in very stereotyped ways, instead of just being normal human beings.
Zwarte Piet may have a wierd fasion sense, but he acts like a normal human being.

Anonymous said...

"Ask a Dutch person about a German sometime." That doesn't have anything to do with feelings of superiority, they just happened to have a tiny little argument about 70 years ago. But unless you ask someone who's over, let's say, 80 years old, they won't really have a problem with Germans anymore. We joke about Germans, yeah, why not? It's a WWII-heritage thing I guess. Even though most of us have nothing against the germans, we were raised by people who saw their families get killed or have been in concentration camps. Humour is one way of dealing with things and maybe we (the Dutch) prefer this way of dealing with things. I mean, you can sit around and cry when something bothers you or just laugh about it, release the tension, and get on with life.

Lauren says weird-looking depictions of black people are different from weird-looking depictions of Irish or women. Why is that? Women have been oppressed all over the world and still are, whereas the oppression of Irish and blacks fortunately is a thing belonging to the past, mostly anyway. Somehow it seems you're not allowed to say anything about black people. The same thing we have in the netherlands with moroccans. If you say you're neighbour is an asswhole and he happens to be from morocco, you kind of have to explain to everyone how you don't mean you hate everyone from morocco, etc. But that, the explaining, is the racist act. Because if your neighbour is an asswhole from, let's say, Norway (I thought that would be a safe example), no one would bother to say not all norwegians are bad. So if you really feel Moroccans, blacks, or any other people are equal to - let's stick to them - Norwegians, you don't have to explain anything.

Grow a sense of humour and learn to get along with each other. Just because I think your food is strange or your clothes are weird or your customs are different from mine, doesn't mean I hate you. And if I don't like you, it doesn't mean I hate everyone sharing your nationality, skin colour or religion.

Oh by the way, whe is everyone offended by the lips? Most black people have relatively big lips compared to white people. Doesn't have anything to do with racism, it's just a racial feature (although I admit I haven't seen a lot of dark men wearing bright red lipstick, but maybe the moors did use 'make-up'? some tribes use paint, and kohl was used in the middle east for protecting the eyes from sunlight I've read, so maybe there's an explanation for this as well?). I wouldn't take offence from a cake of a white woman with extremely blue eyes.

Also I don't get the problem when it comes to the word 'negro'. It just has to do with the latin word for black/dark. The whole PC thing annoys the hell out of me anyway. Same thing with handicaps, like being visually impaired is completely different from being blind. Why does using a term that's three times as long make things completely different?

Masha said...

Great post, I laughed in horror. :P
As for the comments... ok, first of all, I dunno the state of racism in most other countries (other than Russia and the US, which I know fairly well since I've lived in both), but I know that people are probably not thinking of racist stereotypes when making stuff like this because of history. HOWEVER... that does not make it not racist in essence, whether they mean it or not (and I'm sure they mean well). People cry "political correctness!" every time someone points out something unfair, but no, it's just called having an opinion about prejudice and recognizing it. I realize that the Dutch don't go around thinking that black people are like this, nor are they necessarily affected by the messages attached to it, but it looks like it has a racist history, at the least. And someone doesn't have to be American to recognize that.
Anyway, as I said, great post.

Anonymous said...

@ Liz:

Thank you very much. You said what I was going to say in a much more succinct manner.

The cakes made me stare in disbelief. John, it's a great post, because they're Wrecks on sooo many levels.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with this tradition and i only realised how wrong it looked when foreign people gasped at it.

In the children's songs, Zwarte Piet (black Pete) is referenced as a servant who is silly and goofy. There are rumoured to be hundreds of them working for Saint Nicolas, making the presents children get (like Santa's elves). Of course it is easy to see that this referred to a black slave who was portrayed as silly, goofy and happy.

Why blackface? Because untill the end of the 19th century, most locals here had never seen a black man.

Black Pete is the one bringing the presents in the name of Saint Nicolas and used to also punish bad children. (he wore a little whip and had a canvas bag to abduct bad children, i kid you not)

This tradition will not end soon and few people here even realise the racist nature of something centuries old.

7slaper said...

Hurray for your site; it's hilarious and I certainly like your witty and intelligent comments.

What makes me sad, is the cockiness and presumptiousness of the americans in general and of the visitors to this site in particular.

Right I am Dutch, yes I'm white, yes I am over 40,Yes I love Sinterklaas, my children and friends do so too - even my "negro" friends find no offense in this tradition and participate happily.

When you don't know about a tradition, you might google it before you start to judge.

I have seen several remarks coming back more than once. That means you don't even read what other people had to say: your opninion, your witty remark is the only thing that counts.

Sint Nicolaas, was a Turkisch Bishop(Myra),who resided in Madrid (Spain). He was the patron of the sailors, the poor, and children in particular. Initionally once a year in winter, when food was scarce, he brought goodies to the families with children who's fathers/husbands had been drowned at sea. He was declared a Saint. We cherish him and his black assistants.

Some parents use them as a threat, to keep the chilrend behaving nicely. That is nothing to be proud of.

I do understand that this tradition is hard to understand for Americans in particular, given their history regarding slavery!

Furthermore I would like to add that you - visitors of this and other blogs and fora - should realize that "other" people visit these sites too, so forget about the protected cosiness of the family womb. You tend to offend us (=the others) more often than you think, not being aware that you're not alone!

btw I don't mind jokes about the Dutch - some are true, some are not
and some are even funny.

Well I feel a lot better having posted this, I do hope you are feeling ok too.

have a nice day :)

Anonymous said...

Actually, Zwarte Piets (usually there are more than one following Santa Klaas around) were his slaves. They weren't "sooty" because Sinta Klas doesn't come down the chimney. He doesn't have flying reindeer. He rides a horse, after taking a short boat ride from Spain.

Nowadays, Zwarte Piet is considered a "helper." He used to be a slave, but now he helps out because he WANTS to. But maybe he's a little passive-aggressive, because he beats and kicks children who are bad. Kinda makes a lump of coal seem not that bad, huh?


Sr. Mina, BSP said...

I love the first pic. It honours Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) for who he really is... a Bishop. I won't comment on his helper, as that seems to be a topic too hot to touch.

But thank you for posting that pic. I get tired of seeing "reformed/Americanised" Santas when I'd rather see him for who he really is. An honoured Bishop who prays for us.

Anonymous, he's not a Pope. He is a Bishop. It might help if you researched him.

And if you wonder, yes, I'm American. And obviously Catholic. It stumps me that anyone could just "overwrite" the truth about him just to make him more popular and commercialised for cola.

Anonymous said...

What a great site. Very funny cakes--cakes are just kind of inherently funny though.

On blackface/racism, etc: minstrel shows, aunt jemimah, and other caricatures of black people rely on exaggeration, as do all caricatures: jews with big noses, chinese with slanted eyes, hungarians with big eyebrows. as someone else noted, black people generally have larger lips and the contrast of the whites of their eyes to their skin is more pronounced that such contrasts are on lighter skinned people.

The problem is that in the white dominated western world, black features are not as attractive as white features. as someone noted, no one would take offense to a cake that had a girl with really blue eyes or really blonde hair. the exaggeration of "white" features, even say big pokey ears (Mad magazine) doesn't cause offense because it's not perceived as ugly or unflattering in the same way two oversized red lips are. They don't look good on Ronald McDonald either!

Take a cake that caricatured an Irish person, small upturned nose, squirrely eyes, basically a leprechaun, and most people wouldn't find it racist or even negative. The exaggeration of those Irish features does not cause offense because the underlying features are not unattractive in the western world.

Unfortunately black features are not typically considered as attractive or even neutral (say asian features) and black caricatures make us confront that fact.

There's a mix of other things at work: the extreme liberal types who enjoy being offended as a means of proving their "goodness," the types who enjoy any chance to feign victimhood, those that think that any portrayal of a minority in a position of lower status to a white man should never be allowed.

Racism is real and ongoing. We don't get rid of it (if we do at all) by sanitizing our world. Blacks should be up for caricature just like anyone else. Cakes do not oppress, caricatures do not oppress. There's an analogous fairy tale about a boy who falsely cried wolf one too many times, but fairy tales, it seems, are right out!

Nookleerman said...

Well, it's official Anon, you are an idiot. So it's your position that all black people are ugly, huh? That's an interesting take on the world, what with so many famous black models, actresses, singers, dancers, etc. How is it possible you could be so unbelievably unaware how offensive your remarks are? How is it posible you function in normal society with out repeatedly falling down?

My only hope (please, dear lord, let it be true) is that you are just some pathetic troll trying desperately to get noticed, because you couldn't genuinely believe that just because someone is black they are automatically less attractive, or for that matter there exists in the world such a thing as "black features" or "asian features". You would be hard pressed to line up 100 randomly chosen black people and get half of them with the same height, body type, lip size, skin tone, or any other gross generalization you may come up with in AFRICA let alone here in America.

Unknown said...

I arrived here looking for images for my cousin's untraditional wedding. Great blog!

I was browsing your posts and I've found this one. I'm from Argentina. Those cookies are not intended to be offensive either.

We are a country with a very small population of african-descent. Our great-great-parents were more keen to enslave our own native-americans.

Only upper class, urban families had African slaves on their households, because that kind of "commerce" with England and Portugal was prohibited by Spain when we were a colony. Getting slaves via smuggling or pretending to be "gifts" by someone abroad was expensive.

Whay I tell you this? Just because usually the features on the cookies, called more commonly "negritas" than "africanitos" refer to a beloved character, the "negrita lavandera" (little laundress black girl) that's never missing on our children's school plays on national holidays.

The first "libertos" (children of slaves that were stated free at birth) worked on that kind of services, and our school system loves to show off that even on the earlier days of our country there were Free-Birth laws. Of course, they always forget to tell you that Ethics has nothing to do with (just laws against Free-Trade).

The cookies where supposed, originally, to portrait them. They were at first offered around National holidays, like our nations Birthday or our Independence Day. But just like many other holiday-related stuff, now they're everyday treats.

And as every bakery wants to has a different one, there are variants. The oned on the picture have a bone (not a bow) over their head, as if they were from a primitive tribe; some other have big "earrings" made of sugared almonds, some have a red cookie as a nose, and so on.

I think it could be considered as a "racially insensitive tradition". Some weeks ago I've read on a local newspaper that some posh bakeries on "touristy" neighborhoods in Buenos Aires are changing the treats to "Mimos" (mimes) by using only white chocolate on the decoration because of complaints if their patrons.

I guess nobody cares if a mime get chomped!

Anonymous said...

Hi Nookleerman, guess you didn't read my post with any attention beyond satisfying your strawman inclinations.

I didn't say that black people are somehow a priori unattractive, I said that in the western world--a world dominated in population by white people--white features are considered more attractive than black features. this is not to say that *no* black people have ever been considered attractive in the western world, but it seems pretty obvious that certain "whiter" characteristics dominate the western concept of beauty. if you can't concede that whites have, generally speaking, different and identifiable features than blacks or asians do, then we probably can't discuss the issue with any probity. blacks have certainly interbred more since the civil way southern days and are less "black" than they once were, but there are still stereotypically cognizable features to the different races. even if you were right and there were no correlation between skin color and certain features anymore, there is still a public perception that phenotypical distinctions exist, and thus people get upset when certain "black features are played up. for instance, big lips on blacks are always "racist," but wide ears on george bush never are. why not? not all white people have wide, ape-ish ears. the difference is that one feature is deemed "uglier" in the western world, and thus to depict someone or to connect a race with that feature, even if it is on balance just as justified as connecting the white race with wide, goofy looking ears, is worse.

the point is that exaggerating black features is racist because it emphasizes that black people are more connected with certain features that are less attractive to the western hegemony. if you don't accept that, even now after much racial mixing, that white people, asian people, black people, etc, have certain features that are *generally* more predominant within the race that without, we just can't have the conversation. you must think that it's just random that all the racists out there seize, independent of each other, on the same features to exaggerate when they caricature black people. what an odd non-mathematical world you live in then.

Yan Naing said...

Nothing's as mean as giving a little child something useful for Christmas. ~Kin Hubbard

Dee Dee said...

Oh my god!!! I just look at the "africanitos" and want to run to the bakery. They are ridiculous, but sooooooooooo tasty!!! and the gum bow and gum lips really closes the deal. The best ones are made of chocolate mousse and a heart of dulce de leche (like the caramel filling on Milky Ways)

Anonymous said...

I know I'm several months late to comment, I just discovered the blog (which I love, btw), I just wanted to say that I live in Argentina (for the past 15 years), and I have NEVER seen the "africanitos" at any bakeries, so I'm guessing Megan found some kind of KKK bakery!

theCherrytasty said...

Another several-months-later poster here.. I recently discovered the blog, really like it, read the archives, etcetera. I'm also Dutch and grew up with the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition. Like a lot of other people have already stated, Saint Nicholas was originally a bishop from Turkey. I don't know why he was dislocated to Spain, but it is very probable that Saint Nicholas' helpers (considering the original backstory, I don't think they were slaves in the beginning, but later on that might well have been the case, considering Dutch slavery history) were Moors and/or Arabs, thus explaining them being black. I think the 'soot' thing is, at least partly, an excuse to hush people about the racism, by saying "no no, it's okay, it's soot, Piet can be any colour under that!", but since he does come down through the chimney.. well, it's probably a combination of both. (and he doesn't wear black-sooted clothes because he'd look like a goth?)

I think it should also be noted that the American Santa Claus is actually based on Saint Nicholas, brought in by the Dutch immigrants, and changed over the years.

I have to admit, at first I was surprised at the amount of disgust some (mostly American) people displayed at seeing these cakes. But after reading all the comments, I think I understand a little bit better why seeing these horibble caricatural cakes offends so many people. Because to me, they're just some stupidly-decorated cakes I see in stores every year, and wouldn't think of buying because, well, I'm not really 'into' the Sinterklaas festivities that much. But when I look at it from an American point of view, I can see why it can be very offensive, mostly because of the 'blackface', and I do think that's offensive, although it's mostly not seen that way over here. But I would like to add that Zwarte Piet is in no way like the 'Toms' or 'Mammies' that are present in American cultural history, but I can see why one would think so, because for someone who isn't aware of the backstory of the holiday it does look like that a lot.

Now, it's a fact that the Netherlands were absolutely horrible concerning slavery and colonialising other countries back in the days. But somehow, this all got removed from our collective memories. Which is really weird when you think about it, because the Netherlands were the last country to abandon slavery, and yet no one seems to be aware of that. We've also conquered Indonesia and done horrible things there, but outside of history class, it's not mentioned anywhere.
I remember a few years ago, our Prime Minister said something about how the Dutch people needed to get back their 'Dutch East India Company (VOC)'-mentality. What he meant was that the nation should become more productive and lucrative, but since the VOC-era was the era were we sailed the earth, colonialised all possible countries, and acted like arrogant, pompous imperialists towards the native inhabitants of those countries, that statement was not received positively.

Now, I think the Dutch people should try to become a bit more aware of their own history, because we are not the open, tolerant nation we think we are, and we weren't back then. I think someone else already said Americans are a bit more aware of their cultural history concerning slavery, and therefore more sensitive around these kinds of things.

But please, everyone, do remember: this is supposed to be a light-hearted children's holiday. We are aware that there are sensitivities we have to work around, and we are constantly discussing and re-evaluating it. I’m glad to have read this discussion, because now I understand various points of view a little better.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm sorry... doesn't Santa Clause use midgets who have to walk their assess off, carry heavy presents, and be nice and funny?
Isn't that racist at all? Sinterklaas is not the same as Santa Claus. Sinterklaas actually existed, he was a bishop from Turkey. Santa Claus is pure fantasy (actually I think the idea came from the Dutch who brought Sinterklaas to the States). Just because you Americans have a history with slavery, doesn't mean you have to attack other countries' traditions that you know nothing about. Sinterklaas doesn't go through the chimney.. the Zwarte Pieten do. Many Sinterklaas songs have lyrics about the 'Piets as black as soot". And... yes, they are Africans as well. Oohooo, a black person that goes through a chimney, isn't that racist??? Can Africans not be included in a tradition? They are friendly men, giving out presents, why is that racist? If they were white midgets, would it be okay? Please..

Maudy said...

Well, just in case someonse still reads these... Yes I am Dutch and yes I absolutely love this tradition. Why? Because it actually happenend like this, black people were enslaved to help the bishop and you know what? My kids know about slavery and how awful it is to treat your fellowmen like that. Who of you in the U.S.A. has ever taken the trouble to explain racism to a three-year-old? I know you're out there, bickering on "everything is possible because it's tradition" try to look at it from the positive side, because besides the horrific cakes, there is one.
Nowadays, the part played by the Piet is actually that of a cool dude, helping a bearded senile guy, because he's too old to remember anything. (And that in no way is offensive to old senile people). My children go to school in a multicultaral environment, there are actually 24 different nationalities at their school and that isn't an exception here in Holland. Actually they're half Mexican themselves and to wrap this thing up with stating this is not a racist issue: My Mexican husband paints (yes he actually has to paint himself)his face every year to keep the Dutch tradition alive.

Respect Jen, for tackling this subject, congradulitons, you did great. When will you do a Europe tour?
And because I do not want to take myself too seriously I'll send you a great wreck I actually made myself ("It was my first", she said in a defensive tone)and it is from no-one less than the old bearded senile himself: Sinterklaas!

Anneke (Mudhooks) said...

Okay. In case anyone thinks the Caga Tio tradition is weird...

Caganer or "Sh**ter", a traditional part of the Catalan nativity scene.

Anonymous said...

Part 1:

Another late poster. I read every single comment, and (as a folklorist) was fascinated by the differing points of view.

Here's my take: Humans are diurnal creatures who instinctively cleave to lightness and fear darkness. We tend therefore to portray gods and demons as shining white entities or shadowy black entities. Even Subsaharan Africans traditionally paint themselves white or black to portray divine figures, with no thought to what their own skin color is.

The Swarte Piet and St. Nicholas pair seem to have begun (to use that word loosely; there's no ultimate origin of anything) as images of light and darkness, or (in a more Christian context) of goodness and sin. Piet's name may come from the model of Jesus and St. Peter, who in medieval folklore often travel around together, with Peter as Jesus' sidekick, sometimes bumbling, sometimes worldly and tricksterish.

These medieval representations of the Black Man have nothing to do with actual human beings, or race, or people of a particular geographic origin. However, to the misfortune of African people, when international trade did begin to increase European awareness of other peoples, Africans inherited the negative connotations of blackness in the European consciousness, which made it all the easier to demonize them and to create race-based slavery, which was worse than other kinds because it uniquely dehumanized its victims.

Victoria Simmons

Anonymous said...

Part 2:

But, really, as soon as Swarte Piet acquired a turban or any kind of recognizable "foreign" costume, he became "the Other" in a human sense. The stereotype associated with him, though, should be distinguished from the American history of slavery and racism. In European terms he was exotic, from "elsewhere," possibly a little threatening (because Turks and Moors were portrayed as exotic and violent and threatening), but also as magical and not necessarily bad.

Europe doesn't have America's history of slavery and racism, but it has its own history of imperialism and colonial abuses, and a racist ideology supporting those things, which culminated in 19th century ideas of racial purity, Aryanism, and eugenics, and found its tragic end in the Holocaust. And Europe still has problems with racist portrayals such as the British Golliwogs and with neo-fascist white-nativist movements. There is no way to claim that those things are completely irrelevant to the Swarte Piet figure, and indeed several Dutch people have remarked that the figure has been seen as controversial in at least some cases.

victoria simmons

Anonymous said...

Part 3:

A figure such as Swarte Piet may have origins that have nothing to do with race and may serve as a lovable and positive image for children. Perhaps he should be encouraged as a holiday character, and portrayed as either a clever ethnic person or as a magical black-than-black entity, to create a positive diversity in a child's world. But no one should try to claim that he inhabits a world where race has no meaning.

But we should all be aware that the perception of Swarte Piet depends on an individual's awareness of his history, his country's history, and the history of other countries. Americans (black or otherwise) offended by him should be aware that most Netherlanders (even black ones) don't perceive him as ethnically African any more than people perceive the yellow Simpsons family as Asian. When a Dutch person says as much, perhaps we should try taking them at their word.

At the same time, we bring who we are to any new experience, and it is inevitable that we Americans should be taken aback by this custom, especially when the images of the cakes are truly indistinguishable from a long history of racist portrayals of black people in advertising, domestic artifacts, etc. This is especially the case since Americans tend to regard black-white racial tension as somehow our own special provenance and forget that it can exist elsewhere, or that race issues can have completely different nuances elsewhere.

But we shouldn't be so determined to let our own worldview determine the discourse, or to refuse to believe that what might seem shocking might have a different meaning when seen with different eyes. The cakes, however, really are awful, and they are evidence against these figures being so very innocent.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, the whole chimneysweep thing isn't arbitrary. Many of these black figures of medieval European origin are portrayed as sweeps. It accounts for their blackness and their association with fire, and helps distance them from particular ethnic identities. Hearthfires are sacred in themselves, and often have a symbolic link to the smith's fire--and blacksmiths were seen as magically powerful figures themselves. Contact with sweeps and smiths was considered lucky. Well, it was once considered lucky to rub a Negro child's head--a practice that reinforced thinking of Africans as the Other.

But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should be able to examine our own traditions in light of changing beliefs and attitudes, but a people without traditions is a sad, shallow spectacle. I don't want to live in a society where popular tradition is no deeper or older than Star Wars or Star Trek.

And, you know, America actually has its own version of Swarte Piet. He is more familiarly known as Belsnickel, and more likely to be in furs or rags than blackface, but he serves the same role, and is found in traditional Pennsylvania German communities.

Thanks for the space! I've just discovered this blog and I'm obsessively making my way through it from the start! I love it!

wv: noscorn -- The attempt to understand others prior to heaping scorn.

Victoria Simmons

Anonymous said...

It is not a Christmas tradition, because Sinterklaas is on December 5th!
And it's not racism against Africans, because the costume is actually Moorish, which dates back to a time when Moors equalled 'from very far away'.

And you don't seem to realize that Sinterklaas a very strict, stern old man, basically friendly but not very approachable. It is Zwarte Piet who is friendly, funny and approachable. Toddlers still find him impressive, but kids from ages 4 up are smitten by them (and by the candy they hand out).

So if you still want to consider the character racist (some overly politically correct Dutch people in the 1980s were of the same opinion) you can doubt if it is so bad if the black person is the most loved one.

Those cakes are not normal, by the way. We have many different kinds of candy, chocolate, gingerbread made especially for Sinterklaas, but I don't think I have ever seen such cakes. The image of Zwarte Piet does of course appear on coloring books, CDs, films, televison shows, wrapping paper - anywhere.

Your comment about Zwarte Piet making Sinterklaas's robes dirty is a bit offensive, by the way. Sinterklaas would never say anything remotely like that (unless Zwarte Piet has been changing Baby Piet's diapers).

Oh, and I am not claiming that we don't have racism here in Holland - we have a huge problems with it, with a racist party currently giving government support (they're not anti-black but anti-Muslim, because our two largest racial minorities are generally muslim). Whatever you think of Zwarte Piet, you can hardly call him an equal problem for our society as the widespread hate against Muslims.

Erik Smit

Sami said...

Flight of the Conchords reference?? You rock my racist world!

Haiku Joy said...

Bert buys his lipstick
at In-For-A-Pound Market.
Candy time! Soot up!

Anonymous said...

Africancitos or Africanitos are the bomb!!! these are made of cake + dulce de leche + chocolat. yummy!!

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