It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows anything about names to learn that I’m Dutch. My parents took advantage in 1961 of the assisted passage scheme that brought 10,000 of us to NZ between the years 1947-62.
One thing I had to get my little head around was that Saint Nicholas didn’t do his annual stuff in the Antipodes on the 5th of December as he did back at home, but almost three weeks later.
Well, he’s a busy guy, I surmised, so I guess he starts in Europe and works his way down, and that takes time. But he didn’t quite look the same in NZ either – perhaps his wife was washing his Northern Hemisphere clothes when he went south.
However, these turned out to be moot points as my parents decided to not observe the Santa Claus tradition because it coincided with Christmas which for them was a strictly religious occasion. That was a bummer for a 7-year-old, although it soon struck me that the Santa Claus tradition wasn’t nearly as much fun as the Saint Nicholas Feast anyway. I fondly recall the extended-family get-togethers on the 5th of December when all the folks in the street would club together and put on a real bash for the kids (and the adults). Houses would be visited by a neighbour all decked out as the good saint, accompanied by his assistant Black Pete, a lovable buffoon who handed out snacks and added a large measure of jollity to the proceedings. The Saint Nicholas tradition is an integral part of Dutch culture, and is observed through processions and street parties laid on by local councils. There may be scores, even hundreds, of Black Petes running around to everyone’s delight. And a great time is had by all.
That’s until the PC equivalent of the Morality Police came along. Black Pete is ‘racist’, they say, and promotes ‘negative racial stereotypes’, they say. The Black Pete tradition is a throw-back to the days of slavery, they say, which it glorifies, they say. Black Pete must go, they say. Rent-a-crowds started ‘protesting’ at Saint Nicholas festivities events. Some local councils buckled under the pressure and began curtailing the festive event, including the Amsterdam city council which slapped a ban on any procession that included Black Pete. There has been serious discussion about replacing Black Pete with, amongst others, a Green Pete and a Rainbow Pete.
But you don’t stomp on a cherished cultural tradition and expect people to not kick up a fuss. Polls have shown that over 90% of Dutch people want Black Pete to stay, and there have been counter-protests against the PC-puritans’ away-with-Black-Pete campaign. There is currently a bill before the Dutch parliament that is referred to as the ‘Zwarte Piet Wet’ (Black Pete Law). I shall quote from the explanatory notes accompanying it (my translation):
The Saint Nicholas Feast, of which Black Pete is an integral part, is the most delightful of Dutch festive folk traditions. This festive event must not be taken away from the Dutch people. It is extremely offensive for this fabulous Dutch tradition to be portrayed as racist.
... The proposed legislation aims to ensure that the most delightful Dutch festive folk
tradition is maintained into the future and Black Pete can remain simply Black Pete.
What a load of hoo-ha! And all about what – a bit of fun that the vast majority of the people engage in every year and hold dear – where is the ‘crime’ in that? But all right, not all traditions are good, so let’s consider the argument against Black Pete.
The case linking Black Pete to slavery falls flat on its face when you consider the fact that Black Pete is a Moor, not a Negro. He is a representative of a once highly advanced North African civilisation that invaded southern Europe (Spain) and held onto it for centuries. (By no coincidence, the original St Nick was a Spaniard.) Shakespeare’s Othello was a Moor. Moors were certainly involved in the slave trade, but as slave-traders, not as the traded. As for a ‘racial stereotype’ for Moors, one can not be said to exist today, at least not in Europe, although it did in centuries past when it was tempered with a grudging respect, as transpires in Shakespeare’s play. To claim that Black Pete fosters any extant ‘negative racial stereotypes’ is arrant nonsense apparently based on the fallacy that Pete is a sub-Saharan African.
Last month, the Dutch Council of State declared that the Amsterdam council had not had the right to withhold permission for Saint Nicholas processions including Black Pete. However, they would not be drawn on the question as to whether the Black Pete tradition is ‘racist’, which they said was outside their purview.
What has all this got to do with NZ? In terms of direct relevance, not much – the English Santa doesn’t have any ‘ethnic’ assistants. But the Black Pete phenomenon – the know-all trendies telling the rest of us our cultural icons are Politically Incorrect and must therefore be discarded – is not alien to Britain or NZ. Children’s literature has been a prime target since the 1970s. Remember Noddy and the Famous Five, the lovable Enid Blyton characters my generation cut our literary teeth on? The PC clique decided the depiction of the golliwogs in the Noddy stories was ‘racist’. The publishers replaced them with goblins, but the damage had been done and Noddy was given the flick from school reading lists. Then the Famous Five were adjudged ‘sexist’ and went the same way. I wonder what Enid’s reaction would have been (she died in 1968) to learn that the Wikipedia entry on her work includes a description of them as “elitist, racist, xenophobic and sexist” – not one of total surprise, as she was warding off criticism by the mid-1960s, but probably one of indignant astonishment.
One can only wonder with trepidation what is next on the PC-hitlist. I’ve been out of NZ a long time – is ‘Footrot Flats’ still ‘safe’? I must Google it some time and enter ‘racist’ alongside the name – who knows what might come up.
It’s high time those of us who have managed to retain our sanity and self-respect, and see PC-fascism for what it is, stood and fought rather than engaging in appeasement by giving in to their inane social-engineering demands. Many Dutch people are now doing just that, and good on them, I say!
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London) is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and a regular contributor to Breaking Views on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.