Black faces & red noses

Photo of Saint Nick & Black Pete According to Dutch folklore, or at least on a character first appearing in the 1850 Jan Schenkman children's book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his Servant), Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) has a Negro accomplice named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). The tradition holds that as the Christmas season approaches, Santa and his black-faced compadre Pete are involved in festivities which include costumes, festivals and the distribution of sweets to children.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the fictitious sidekick, Black Pete, drew considerable, and arguably predictable, negative attention. Because the character was often depicted as a comedic servant, typically portrayed by white actors covering their skin in black makeup, wearing black wigs and large earrings, not surprisingly, cries of racism emerged.

The controversy surrounding Black Pete gained some attention in Ottawa this week when Ottawa's Dutch Groceries & Giftware, bowing to criticism and public pressure, announced earlier this week that Black Pete will not be making an appearance at this year's Christmas festivities. According to its owners Henk and Jose' van Zijl, (as reported by CBC), this will be the first time in 60 years the character has not made an appearance.

Criticism of the Ottawa grocery store's seasonal event was spearheaded by Cesar Ndema-Moussa, President of the Caribbean Union of Canada, who asserted that Pete is "a slave-era representation of the discrimination and racism against blacks ... with the usual stereotypes of blackface, big lips and a clumsy character."

It would seem, judging from the coverage provided by local media, that a petition voicing opposition to Black Pete was initiated by Ndema-Moussa and, presumably, his group. Store owners, writing in a Facebook post, indicated that "the Ottawa protesters have threatened us with actions" though the nature of those actions was not specified. In light of events which transpired earlier this year in Charlottesville, I can't help but picture an enraged Dutch militant bicyclist running over anti-Pete demonstrators on Clyde Avenue.

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A harmless fictional character deeply entrenched in tradition and Dutch folklore? Or a racist Colonial hangover which perpetuates stereotypes and discrimination? The debate will, of course, rage on. I reached out to social commentator Nigel Fibbs for his insightful take on the Black Pete controversy. Fibbs' views were, as always, poignant, provocative and uncompromisingly forthright.

Image of Santa Claus and an elf "Of course Black Pete is a depiction based on racist notions," Fibbs stated unequivocally, "Santa Claus is nothing more than the 21st century continuing manifestation of an 18th-century economic model which serves to promote the interests of the Bourgoisie!" Fibbs pulls no punches as he waxes prophetically on the controversy. "Wealth is enhanced by controlling the means of production and exploiting the working class," he continued. "Black Pete is not his accomplice, he does Santa's bidding, he's his servant, he is his slave. And Black Pete's emancipation is long overdue!"

"I don't know why the fat bastard is called Saint Nick," Fibbs railed, "because he's no fucking Saint, you can take that one to the bank! He's a tyrant! It's unfortunate these Pete-detractors can't see the trees for the forest though. Black Pete is but one of Santa's subjugated victims. Santa has a whole fucking workshop filled with elves! All of them, toiling away in a toy-factory sweat shop at the North Pole. That's what sociopaths do to their victims; they isolate and brainwash them. We shouldn't be surprised that Black Pete and the elves seem happy with Santa. It's Stockholm syndrome: a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological attachment to their captors as a survival strategy!"

Image of Santa Claus on his sleight Fibbs took a deep breath, then continued with his diatribe. "Need more proof that Santa's a vile scoundrel? Not only does he condone harassment in the workplace, but he uses the disparate treatment as a tool for his benefit. Take poor Rudolph, for example. Poor little fucker's nose is so red it glows. All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. It's well documented you know. Did Santa punish any of the other reindeer for their workplace harassment? No, he didn't, did he? Instead, one foggy Christmas eve, Santa placed poor Rudy in bondage shackled to the front of the sled, and forced him to light up the night sky for the entire journey. Look at Canada geese flying south," Fibbs explained, "the one out front does more work. And those in draft have an easier job. Poor Rudolph is out front all the time. That's not equal pay for equal work, the reindeer with the physical disability is doing the lion's share!" Fibbs, I had to admit, did make some fine points.

When I asked Fibbs what he cherished most about Christmas, without hesitation, he replied "We'll finally be getting more sunlight every day."

Submitted by Jeff Dubois, 01 December 2017