Forget About Black Peter?????

IMG_4922Tomorrow is St. Nicolas Eve.  In The Netherlands and around the world children of Dutch heritage will be setting out their wooden shoes.  They will be going to bed not with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads but rather of pepernoten, taai-taai and chocolate letters. Yet in the larger world the feast of St. Nicolas is not conjuring up images of innocent children snuggling into bed with excited anticipation of tomorrow’s festivities but rather accusations of racism centered on the character of Black Peter.  All this makes me wonder if in all the controversy we have forgotten whose feast it is.

It is interesting that the Dutch people so known for their tolerant ways are remaining stubbornly ethnocentric on this point. I myself come from a family that crossed racial lines a long time ago. My blue eyed, blond haired Aunt Elsie married Uncle Ak, a Japanese Canadian back in the 1960’s already. I also have cousins of Nigerian and Jamaican heritage. I anticipateIMG_4921 the arrival in March of a grand-daughter who I hope will be as proud of her father’s Iraqi heritage as her mother’s Dutch roots. Therefore, I suspect that behind all this resistance to change isn’t so much racist bigotry as the influence of several well-known Dutch characters known as kwajong, Meneer Woodenhead and Mevrouw Eigenwijs. Most of us have heard the phrase: wooden shoes, wooden head, wouldn’t listen.  It describes many old Dutchmen that we know who resist any argument that might precipitate change.  You have also probably met some kwajongen even if you didn’t realize.  A kwajong is a mischievous boy who likes to pull monkey tricks. But it also describes someone who acts contrary just for the fun of it.  I have been surrounded by wooden headed kwajongen all my life. I know the tricks they are usually up to. And not to deny Dutch women a place, how many of us haven’t been called “eigenwijs”? I certainly have been called that when I have acted like I knew better than anyone else. So given the Dutch character(s) I am not at all surprised about the “push back” that is happening about Black Peter not just in The Netherlands but also among Dutch Canadians. But in all of this I think we have forgotten what St. Nicolas Day is all about.

The veneration of St. Nicolas can be traced back for more than 1000 years. Christmas caroling door to door and the mysterious, mythical appearance of gifts all have their origin in the traditional celebration of St. Nicolas’s feast day. In The Netherlands the saint is known as Sinterklaas. When I was growing up it didn’t matter if you were from a Dutch Catholic, Protestant or atheist family…everyone celebrated Sinterklas. How that came to be is explored in our article “The Amazing Survival of St. Nick”.  Black Peter or Zwarte Piet as he is known in The Netherlands never showed up in print until 1850 when a poem by an Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman: Sint-Nikolaas en zijn knecht (“St. Nicholas and His Servant”)IMG_4929  was published. The Zwarte Piet tradition can be traced back to the early 19th century but doesn’t have the same old roots as St. Nicolas. One theory traces Black Peter to German myths. St. Nicolas’s white horse is not part of the original Christian tradition but is believed to have been derived from the myth of the German god Oden who traveled through the skies on a white stallion. In the Oden myth, the god is accompanied by several black ravens. In real life, St.Nicolas was a bishop of Turkey who never saw the shores of Spain, may never seen a Moor and was unlikely to have had a slave considering his compassion for the poor.

Today Sinterklaas’ popularity has extended beyond Christendom to people of other cultural and religious heritages.  In a Cafebabel article says:

Like many EU countries, the Netherlands has recently seen shifting demographics due to sustained immigration from countries such as Turkey and Morocco. To gauge the appeal of Sinterklaas among these newcomers, a number of Dutch-born high schoolers with one or more immigrant parent were asked for their thoughts. Of fifteen respondents living in the suburbs of Amsterdam and The Hagueten were raised muslimone was raisedhindu, and four grew up in non-religious households. Regardless of religion, the teenagers all confessed to believing in Sinterklaas as children, and all of them celebrated at school. Over half of the muslim-raised respondents even reported celebrating Sinterklaas with their families at home, in spite of islam’s prohibition against the observance of non-muslim holidays. Despite its roman catholic trappings, all but one of these students viewed Sinterklaas as a nonreligious cultural celebration. http://www.cafebabel.co.uk/society/article/sinterklaas-and-black-petes-multicultural-evolution-in-netherlands.html

Sinterklaas has become everyone’s saint. In spite of his “sectarian origins” he has universal appeal. I believe his survival of the Reformation and his appeal to so many people is rooted in the generosity that he represents. In a world reeling from news reports of terrorist attacks and sectarian war, we have this figure who reminds all of us to be a bit more gracious. I don’t think we should forget about Black Peter but perhaps in all the uproar about him we have forgotten what the feast of St. Nicolas celebrates:  the life of a man who gave generously to the poor without wanting any thanks. Black Peter is a fun character whose medieval page costume is bright and extravagant. He doesn’t need  blackface to maintain his appeal. A few smears of soot will do the job. Perhaps it is time we all gave a bit.

 

St. Nick is coming to town!

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No matter what you call him: Santa Claus, Joulupukki, Père Noël, St. Nick, Sinterklas, Jultomten, Mikulás, Weihnachtsmann,  Julenissen, Ded Moroz, Mos Craciun, Siôn Corn…tomorrow he’s coming to Welland.

For some he is a mythical magical figure, for others a historic person with a reputation for generosity or a revered saint. For almost everyone but the most die-hard Scrooge, he represents the spirit of giving.

Tomorrow in Welland, the Downtown Welland Business Development (BIA) Board will be sponsoring our annual Santa Claus parade.  I will be walking the route handing out candies and coupons for the European Pantry. We hope to see you there! It starts a 4 pm.

Learn more about the history of Santa Claus here.

Why Dutch People Give Chocolate Letters

IMG_2859Why do Dutch people give chocolate letters? When we receive our initial on “Pakjesavond” December 5 or at Christmas most of us just eat the delicious chocolate without wondering why this unique tradition is still practiced. The history of receiving a “letter” dates back centuries but originally letters were made of pastry. This is why almond pastry rings are still called “banket letter” by some people. I still remember my mother receiving a banket “C” for her birthday from a friend who was an excellent baker. In the days before gift

banket letter

Still life with Letter Pastries by Peter Binoit, ca. 1615 Museum Amstelkring on loan from the Groninger Museum. Photo: C Myers

wrapping, parents would spread a bed sheet over the gifts for “Sinterklaas”. They would then mark the place of each child’s gift with the child’s initial. Still life paintings of old Dutch masters from the 16th & 17th centuries show these pastry initials.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Dutch chocolate industry began to make letters in chocolate. The shift to chocolate letters was quick and enthusiastic. During World War II, supply shortages meant no chocolate letters but even then letters were made of gingerbread. Once rationing ended chocolate letter manufacturing was quick to resume.

IMG_2862For the Dutch emigres and us, their descendants, the tradition provides a strong connection to our roots. Opas and Omas of large families can give a personalized gift to each grandchild…there is something very special about getting one’s own letter. Of course, the children who got a M or a W always thought they got more chocolate than the poor child whose name started with I. But an I for Ingrid was still better than not getting your letter if your name started with a Q, X, Y or Z. Today, however, all the letters of the alphabet are available…for a limited time, of course. We have already bagged up about 170 pre-orders for our customers on our Chocolate Letter Registry but there are still lots of letters to pick from!

IMG_4884IMG_4883Here at The European Pantry where we have customers that reflect a wide variety of heritages, we find that the idea of giving a letter is catching on with the non-Dutch customer, too. It is such a simple way to give a small personalized thank you to a hair dresser or delivery person. They also can be used as an innovative way to mark place settings at a holiday gathering. Other people use them in the historical way as name tags for gifts.

The chocolate that our letters are made of is all UTZ certified to guarantee ethical production conditions for the chocolate bean farmers and their families. Learn more about UTZ certifications here.