Santa Claus is back in the country. Putting on the shoes, writing poems, singing songs: the party is an important part of Dutch culture. The celebration also revives the discussion about Zwarte Piet. Why do we cling to traditions so much?
King’s Day, making clogs by hand, 4th and 5th May, Hindu festival Holi, summer carnival in Rotterdam, skating on natural ice, lighting of consumer fireworks with New Year’s Eve and the bonfire in Scheveningen. These are examples of rituals and traditions in the Netherlands that are passed down from generation to generation, or in other words intangible heritage.
“Society is constantly in motion, and so traditions change with it,” says Udo Feitsma to NU.nl. He is the spokesperson for the Knowledge Center Intangible Heritage Netherlands. The Sinterklaas party has also changed over time. We still celebrate the party, only many of us do it now without Zwarte Piet. Still, for a part of the population, it feels as if they have to give up an important tradition. Why is it so difficult to say goodbye to a tradition or part of it?
In 1850, Zwarte Piet is depicted for the first time as a servant of Sinterklaas in a picture book by Jan Schenkman. It is not entirely clear when there was criticism of Zwarte Piet for the first time. In 1930 appeared in The green already an article in which a position was taken against the caricature. Almost a hundred years later, Zwarte Piet’s appearance has changed in many places in the Netherlands. At the same time, slightly more than half of the Dutch believe that Piet should remain black. This is evident from the annual Sinterklaas survey by One today.
Change takes time
“The first sounds of criticism of Zwarte Piet are from a long time ago, but the serious objection of the opponents has now existed for more than ten years. It is too short to change a tradition,” says mass psychologist Hans van de Sande. “The fact that the Sinterklaas party, including Zwarte Piet, is a positive memory of their youth for many makes it difficult to distance ourselves from this tradition.”
“It can be complicated when traditions change, but it happens,” said UNESCO committee chairwoman Kathleen Ferrier. “Your birthday changes as you grow up, the flower parades were canceled during the corona period, and Queen’s Day changed date and became King’s Day.”
According to Van de Sande, people find it difficult to say goodbye to Zwarte Piet if they themselves do not have negative associations or intentions with him. “But Zwarte Piet is offensive to a lot of people in our country,” says Ferrier, “and it doesn’t matter whether he’s historically meant to be offensive or not.”
At the core, nothing changes
The knowledge center actually said goodbye to the Sinterklaas party with Zwarte Piet. Since June 2022, it is no longer on the list of intangible heritage. The party was presented to the Knowledge Center in 2015 by the Sint & Pietengilde Foundation.
“It appeared from the preliminary consultations that sufficient consideration was not given to the large groups who consider Zwarte Piet to be offensive. Although this is not the intention, this is the result,” says Feitsma. The audit committee therefore advised the Knowledge Center to organize the Sinterklaas party, as guaranteed by Sint & Pietengilde. The Knowledge Center has accepted that advice.
It was the first time that intangible heritage was deregistered because it did not comply with UNESCO’s guidelines. This does not mean that the party will never make the list again, among all the other rituals and traditions. The Knowledge Center encourages people to register their version of the Sinterklaas celebration.
Ferrier: “It is precisely the traditions that are deeply rooted in our society that keep up with the times. Sinterklaas has not disappeared as a tradition, it is just different from before. There are still entrances that children look at with bated breath Sinterklaas news, they put on their shoes, have wish lists and celebrate a prom night. There is plenty to cling to and look forward to. The power of tradition is that the core always remains.”