The young girl stands pressed against the window watching the events down the block. The waist-to-ceiling, bumped-out, bay window, one floor up, is the perfect view. And there she stands — ironed white shirt, black hair pulled back at the neck, hands pressed flat against the window — too old for all the excitement, too young not to be excited.
And, of course, down the block is excitement. Kids are yelling and dressed in silly costumes. Parents are hunched against the cold and trying to carve out a piece of the curb for their family to stand. Music blares. Pictures are taken. Feathered caps adjusted. It’s a bedlam of anticipation.
Sinterklaas is coming.
Yup, Sinterklaas just landed in the harbor on the boat from Spain. No North Pole here. And Sinterklaas comes with his black-faced helpers, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). And it is the Zwarte Piet that are beloved, as they dance and sing and take care of the slightly befuddled Sinterklaas. Every child wants to be a Zwarte Piet.
Yes, it is holiday time in Holland.
In the next couple of weeks, Sinterklaas will travel all over the Netherlands on his white horse and with his large book where it is written who has been good and who has been bad. Parades, festivities, holiday markets will be held every weekend. Then, on December 5th, the night before Saint Nicholas Day, small gifts will be set out for the good children — with an accompanying poem, believe it or not. All courtesy of the Zwarte Piet, of course, who deliver these goodies by way of the chimney.
Ah, at last, Sinterklaas is coming down the street.
Bands are playing. People are yelling. Horses are high-stepping. And children and adults, with hats and feathers and outlandish costumes, are dancing and singing and throwing small, round, gingerbread cookies to the crowd. A crowd predominantly made up of parents and costumed kids with small burlap sacks outstretched for treats. A joy-filled scene of holiday good cheer as Sinterklaas rides off down the street followed by men looking like Revolutionary War heroes. What a parade.
And the young girl standing in the window with her forlorn gaze? Just watching.
I turn from the curb on which I was standing and suddenly a Zwarte Piet jumps in front of me. I recognize the friendly face of the woman who works at the vegetable shop. Suddenly, other Zwarte Piet appear next to her. They are a mischievous group, laughing and giving me an orange. And then off they go to continue their march in the parade.
A frolicking, grand time.
More than several years ago, concerns arose as to the Zwarte Piet. The large painted red lips, the curly-haired wigs, the black faces — all were a reminder to some of the days of slavery and racism. A few Dutch children of color spoke of the difficulty they had during this holiday. And slowly the movement against Zwarte Piet grew. Rainbow Piet was introduced. Soot-covered Piet, fresh from going down the chimneys, started to appear. Black Sinterklaas and white Piet began to interchange.
But there is a strong push-back. Geert Wilders, the Donald Trump of the Netherlands, has proposed a national law that Zwarte Piet must remain totally black for Sinterklaas festivities. He claims the law will protect the Dutch culture. New wine into old bottles, I’m afraid. Sadly for traditionalists, the present time does not so easily pour into a gilded past.
Many of my Dutch friends, while definitely not supporting Wilders (or Trump), see Zwarte Piet as part of their tradition and without racial overtones. The brouhaha, they claim, is one more example where the notoriously tolerant Dutch open the doors of their culture only to be told they have to change their culture. This is the problem of a tolerant people accepting those who are intolerant, they claim. Do whatever you want — smoke marijuana, go to the Red Light District, be who you choose to be — but don’t tread on me.
Ah, but I know the writing is on the wall. The more the caricatures are identified as racist, the more the tolerant Dutch will be unable to embrace those childhood images without feeling intolerant. And that will be unacceptable in this land that prides itself on tolerance. As one Dutch friend stated: “At first I thought Zwarte Piet was just part of our tradition, but now I think, if it is hurting someone we should change.” Yup, Rainbow Piet is here to stay.
Just like America, really. The illegal immigrant working in our factories is already as American as we are. Our women doctors and women police officers and women plumbers will at some point implode misogyny. The hidden and not-so-hidden racism that plagues our culture at every level cannot survive the melting pot of our very foundation. Sorry. No matter how much we want to still use the old wine bottles, it’s too late, folks, the bottles are going to burst just like they did with same-sex marriage. You can’t put new wine into old bottles no matter who is elected president.
So the parade continues.
And the young girl in the window?