We’ve all experienced culture shock at one time or another, but few of us would expect Christmas celebrations and customs to be shocking. After all, Christmas may be one of the most universally celebrated holidays in the world given how many non-Christians participate in the non-religious commercial aspects of the holiday. We all recognize the jolly fat man with a white beard dressed in red, and few of us wouldn’t be able to identify a decked out Christmas tree and yet cultural differences created quite a controversy this year in Canada.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by Zwarte Pieten “Black Peters”, who distribute candy and presents to the children on Saint Nicholas day (December 6th). Not terribly shocking. What has created the controversy though, is that Zwarte Piet is generally portrayed as a mischievous character in blackface dressed in colorful pantaloons. With exaggerated bright red lips, afro wig and blackface, the character is an uncomfortable black character. In North America and the U.K. blackface is considered offensive and even in the Netherlands where the character is beloved, there is a small but vocal anti-Zwarte Piet movement. Some find the character insensitive given the Dutch position in starting and later participation in the Atlantic slave trade.
Dutch officials have tried to alter the appearance of Zwarte Pieten in the past, replacing the blackface makeup with multicolored, rainbow face paint. However, the practice was discontinued the following year. This year, four people were arrested in the Netherlands for wearing “Zwarte Piet is racist” t-shirts.
The controversy really gained traction this year in Canada. The largest Dutch Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada was canceled this year after vocal outcry against the inclusion of Zwarte Piet. Organizers cancelled the event – saying that Sinterklaas can’t be without Zwarte Piet. Suriname, a former Dutch colony, also stated that the character is a slap in the face to Suriname’s black community, vowing not to promote the character in the future. The history of Zwarte Piet is unclear, but it’s clear that it’s a favorite tradition in the Netherlands.
As a traveler, have you ever experienced cultural traditions that you’ve found shocking or offensive? How did you deal with it? Conversely, should a tradition be changed to be more in line with the times or is tradition tradition?
Photo Credit: Photo 1 from Flickr user zoetnet. Photo 2 from flickr user hans s. Cover photo via flickr user pasukaru76. All are licensed via a creative commons license.