When I studied abroad in Amsterdam, I didn’t experience as much culture shock as a lot of people who go to school in foreign countries. Amsterdam, like America, is a melting pot where many different cultures come together, but The Netherlands is still a country made up of predominately white people. Amsterdam is a thriving tourist stop, historically famous as a bustling trade center and culturally infamous as a free-for-all carnival of immorality. But as far as culture shock goes, I wasn’t nearly as appalled by the legal prostitution or the condoned drug sales as I was by the stark remnants of Dutch colonialism, particularly in the Dutch tradition of Santa Claus.
We had heard from our professors and the Dutch women who headed our study abroad group that Sinterklaas day was a big deal in Amsterdam. The Dutch Santa Claus made a grand entrance in mid-November every year, arriving to Amsterdam by way of a huge ship that cruised through the canals and docked at the Scheepvart Museum in the center of the city.
Our professors told us about how people parked their boats nearby to greet Sinterklaas, and how they closed down Prins Hendrikkade, a main street in the city center, so that people could gather to watch. They told us about the big parade across the city, and the hundreds of parents who brought their kids to see Sinterklaas. What they didn’t tell us was that Sinterklaas rolls into the Dam with a crew of about 300 helpers, ALL of whom are black.
This is the kind of thing that would totally NOT fly in America because of the depraved history of race relations in our country, right? And incidentally, The Netherlands has quite a history with slavery too, but for some reason, it doesn’t occur to the Dutch that there’s anything off about Sinterklaas’s helpers ALL being black. And since there really aren’t a whole lot of black people in The Netherlands, Sinterklaas really just rolls with 300 white dudes wearing elf costumes and blackface.
The helpers are called Zwarte Pieten, which is Dutch for “Black Peters.” Apparently Sinterklaas and Black Peter have been buddies for a long time, and the tradition is so ingrained into the Dutch holiday celebration that four people were actually arrested this year for protesting the Zwarte Pieten. I swear I’m not making this up.
“The Sinterklaas celebration regularly tops the list of best Dutch traditions and it is a well-known joke in international circles that the easiest way to make your Dutch friends angry is to criticize the institution of Zwarte Piet.”
Additionally, the day that Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam in 2008 was the first time I ever vaporized, and that did nothing but add to the insanity of the day. My friend Scott and I decided that we had to go to the city center to witness the grand entrance of Sinterklaas, and what better complement to this spectacular Amsterdam adventure than an early visit to our favorite coffeeshop?
We watched Sinterklaas’s ship cruise in and were seriously shocked by how many people turned out for this event. Not only was the whole street in front of the Nemo closed down for onlookers to watch the ship dock, but the Sinterklaas celebration traveled around the entire city of Amsterdam. Scott and I biked around more or less aimlessly, just guessing as to where we might run into the procession again.
There was a parade down Prins Hendrikkade:
A rave in Dam Square, with projector screens and techno Christmas music:
Another party in Leidesplein:
and random Zwarte Pieten repelling down the sides of buildings, and the clock tower:
Even the guy selling tickets on the tram was a Zwarte Piet!
This is the kind of crazy-ass shit that only happens when you’re high. There was a lot of laughing that day, and whenever people ask about the craziest thing I saw when I was in Amsterdam, I usually tell the story of Sinterklaas day. Most people know about the coffeeshops and the Red Light District, but not as many know about Dutch Santa Claus and his buddy Black Peter.
Dutch children can even buy their own Zwarte Piet mask and black face paint wear to the celebration:
Amsterdam really is a crazy place.
David Sedaris also has a pretty funny piece about the Dutch holiday tradition that you should listen to if you haven’t: