Zombie-Santa vs. Blackface-Piet

Updated: Apr 15


Tonight a Dutch news broadcaster (not sure if it’s safe for me to name names) featured a report about disgruntled parents remonstrating against the publicity poster for the new movie ‘Sint’. The film depicts St. Nicholas kidnapping and murdering children every full moon. As far as horror movies go, it’s nothing to write home about, but it’s the poster that is really raising concerns.


A survey conducted by the news program shows that over 60% of Dutch parents found the poster of a zombie ‘Sint’ too upsetting and unsuitable for children, while the rest of the partakers didn’t care. The children interviewed were not particularly concerned either. This film poster is really no different from most other mainstream horror film posters featured in cinemas nowadays. The real worry I deduce is that this is ‘Sinterklaas’ (Saint Nicolas) one of the proverbial holy grails of Dutch culture.


I’m not so worried about the ‘Sint’ poster or the disapproval of the Dutch public towards it, but I take umbrage over this idea that (in this case) Dutch traditions and perspectives must remain uncontaminated and unmoved. While in the rest of the world Santa Claus has developed into a fleshy, cheerful old man dressed in a red suit with a white collar and black boots, the Dutch Sinterklaas remains that very primordial edition – a canon, dressed in a bishop’s robe and carrying a staff.


The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany are among the last to stick to the original version of Father Christmas, with influences from both Germanic paganism (the god Odin) and the Greek bishop of Myra. Some adjustments have certainly been made since then. The Zwarte Piet appears to be nothing more than an excuse for the Dutch to part take in the racist tradition of blackface. Modernist explanations claim that Zwarte Piet was a slave boy that Sinterklaas saves and the slave is so grateful that he decides to adopt Sinterklaas as his new master.


After the arrival of immigrants in the 1950s, the character became increasingly controversial. Yet the Dutch cling on to their tradition claiming that Zwarte Piet is just a regular servant who fell through the chimney and acquired brown skin and an afro as a result of the soot. According to Dutch folklore, the Saint has a Piet for every function, and the Piets are said to all be lousy at their jobs. Apparently, this is only meant for comedic purposes and to help Dutch children improve certain skills upon seeing that Zwarte Piet is so incompetent. Nothing to do with imparting racist stereotypes.


Sinterklaas en het Pakjesmysterie’ (Santa Claus and the Presents Mystery) is an annual film in which these stereotypes are perpetuated. Dutch parents are content with their children watching these films. As the title suggests, in this film, Sinterklaas and his ‘helpers’ set about trying to solve the mystery of missing gifts. His helpers are not fantastical elves, but a group of people in blackface – all inept, jovial, and sharing the same name.


‘Sint’ which is being featured for the first time in cinemas is facing denigration because of its audacity to meddle with the saintly canon by turning him into a zombie, while ‘Sinterklaas en het Pakjesmysterie’ enjoys commercial success. If making fun of or passing down the rudiments of a history of the slave trade (i.e. by dressing up in blackface) is covered up and not that big a deal, then dressing this old ‘saint’ up in something that he’s not should not be such a big deal either.


It seems to be the general consensus among the Dutch community that since they were all raised with the idea that there is nothing wrong with blackface and Zwarte Piet, then it surely must be so. Immigrants just don’t get it – it’s actually not racist at all!


According to the Dutch majority, a fictional zombie-Saint is more destructive to their society than actual minstrel rituals. It’s certainly not my mission to offend people or demean their culture, but I remain unfortunately unsold on the harmless Zwarte Piet idea.


I would much rather watch a bad horror film about a saint turned bad than have to sit through another cringing season of white people in seemingly politically correct blackface. I’d much prefer seeing little children as excited about dressing up in zombie costumes than blackface, because they cannot possibly comprehend how far their composite amusement goes.


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