I’m coming upon four full months in Belgium, and all is still very much well. Overall I find this country to be a melting pot of different cultures, languages and attitudes. Antwerp is a city so diverse that a five minute walk will give you a surprisingly large taste of countless cultures – women in burqas, Hasidic Orthodox Jewish men with long black coats, and long beards, and Jewish women who often wear wigs and stockings. I hear at least Arabic, French, Dutch, and English daily.
So it’s safe to say I was rather surprised when I learned of a traditional children’s holiday shrouded in controversy. Sinterklaas (more familiar to us as Saint Nicholas, though not to be confused with Santa Claus) is the most popular Christmas figure to Belgian children. Though our dear Santa is also known to Belgians, most grow up with the knowledge that he is a myth – the man on the coca-cola advertisements, not the bearer of presents on Christmas. In Belgium, Christmas Day is a time to spend with family and give a few small gifts – but for children, December 6 is the most special day of the year. The night before Sinterklaas, children leave their shoes out, and Sinterklaas and his helper Zwarte Piet come during the night and deposit gifts.
The holiday seems innocent enough, but it’s the figure of Zwarte Piet that had me, and many other exchange students here completely shocked. Zwarte Piet translates to Black Pete, and is traditionally said to be a Moor from Spain. Belgians, and the Dutch (for the holiday originates in the Netherlands) therefore dress up as Zwarte Piet in blackface, with a curly black wig, gold earrings, and red lipstick. The majority of Belgians I spoke to are so familiar with this jolly site from childhood that they are almost unable to understand foreigners’ general shock when witnessing people on the street or in school participate in something so wholly offensive to many people around the world.
I found myself often in many friendly, though sometimes heated, debates during the month of December with my fellow Belgians, but they always ended the same. Belgians now defend Zwarte Piet, claiming he is black solely from the cinders. Whether this is true or not (although the legend definitely portrays him as a servant Moor from Spain), the real problem is not that he is covered in ash, but that the citizens of Belgian think it is appropriate to turn a blind eye to the rest of the world’s perception of their tradition. I had one conversation with a Belgian where they claimed by making a big deal of blackface, we were actually teaching children racism. He claimed children thought nothing of a painted face, and it is innocent until adults try to ruin it. What no Belgian I talked to seemed to realize is that blackface is offensive to other parts of the world. They do not see it that way, so they claim it must not be that way. Sadly, blackface has an incredibly offensive history, and to turn a blind eye to that, solely to keep a tradition as superficial as dressing up in costume once a year is incredibly disappointing to me.
I love this country, and I find the individual citizens progressive in many areas. But I have witnessed a large amount of racism and xenophobia in Belgium – something markedly surprising to me. Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, does have a nationalist movement, and is so small that the citizens seem to hold a large amount of animosity towards the many immigrants who do not assimilate. They seem to be holding on to their small place in the world, and do not like the many threats to their already precarious national culture. The Flemish hate the Netherlands, and they hate the French part of Belgium. They don’t like anyone really.
Yet despite all of the frustrating and heated conversations over Zwarte Piet, I still love Belgians. Every culture has its differences, and at the end of the day my Belgian friends and I simply agree to disagree. In fact, my friends hosted a mini Sinterklaas-feest to try to show me the joys of the holiday. I had a lovely time, and they made sure Zwarte Piet never made an appearance.