dinsdag 22 oktober 2013

The Secret of Sinterklaas

These days one of Belgium's most (fictional) figures is enduring a crisis. According to the UN, this custom of the Netherlands and Belgium is racist, because the servant of the old white man, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, has a black servant. Human Rights bodies say this custom is like promoting slavery. (Source: Telegraph

A very old picture of me and the holy man
As a Belgian person I have to give my story about Sinterklaas. This figure is an important man in the life of many children. Every morning of 6th of December (in Netherlands: 5th of December) until I was 11 years old, I woke up very excited, and ran downstairs to see the presents the holy man left behind, in change for the sugar, carrots and drawing I left in my shoe the evening before. We believed he came from Spain, by boat, and in Antwerp, every year, there is a big celebration in November, where Sinterklaas and all his servants arrive in the port. There are dozens of candies and oranges. He has a big book, which he brought to all big shopping malls, club parties, and read who was good, and who was bad. I am not good in remembering lyrics, but as child, and still, 14 years later, I can sing all the songs about this man, his boat and home country.

Of course there were the black servants. We called them "Zwarte Piet", which you can translate as "Black Pete". I was scared for them, because all "bad children" disappeared in their bags. I was a good child, but my younger brother and I had often small fights (as many brothers and sisters do), so my small child heart was always drumming against my chest, when Sinterklaas read all the names of the good kids. You never know.

For me, this whole custom has nothing to do with racism. Interested in mythology and witchcraft as teenager, I looked up the story behind Sinterklaas, and read a lot about his origins. The first thing I learnt, is not about his origins, but about his offspring: the American Santa Claus is a derivation of Sinterklaas. The Dutch brought their custom to New Amsterdam, future New York, and later Coca Cola used this figure to promote their drinks.

Ice berg model of culture, Hall (1976)
Sinterklaas itself comes from the old shamans, roles in society which existed before Christianity entered Western-Europe. Shamans were the mysterious figures, who were in touch with nature, and cured people. Sinterklaas is some old, dark figure, from ancient dark times. You can compare him with Pan, the Greek god with the horns. The Church tried to ban all pagan elements from society in the Medieval Times, so they "christianized" everything. They split the celebration of the shaman, in two figures: his bright, sacred side became a saint from Spain, and his dark, nature, passionated side became the dark Black Pete.
Sinterklaas is white, Black Pete is black. They cannot exist without each other, like yin cannot exist without yang. For me, they represent control and impulsive nature of people

Before you ban culture, or habits, because in the surface they look bad, you've to dive beneath the surface of the iceberg. Culture is like an iceberg, like Professor Hall described in his model. We are not racist. Black has many meanings. It also means passion, darkness, nature, the shadows of our soul...  Black Pete takes "bad chidlren" with them, but maybe "bad children" are more connected with nature than most children are. In these songs, bad is a word defined by the Church. Maybe my heart was not drumming so hard, because it was scared, but because it was excited to learn more what is hidden in the bag of Black Pete.
Like Alice fell in the rabbit hole.

I also wrote an article for EGEA about the Ice Berg Analogy of EGEA, which you can read here (2012):  
Beneath the Surface of the Iceberg

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