Friday 5 December 2014

Bonte Piet

Wit bont en fijn
Hangend op de lijn
When I lived in Holland (and the Netherlands) 35 years ago, I learned a fair bit of Dutch by way of immersion language acquisition.  One of the ear-worms that I still can't shake is the jingle (above) for some all-singing, all-dancing laundry detergent, idiomatically translated as "whites, coloureds and delicates, hanging on the line".  Another from the road-safety authority was twee uur riden; kwart uur rust aka "after two hours driving [you should take] a quarter hour's rest".  I don't do this, of course, but I know it will one day save my life. Today it's Sinterklaas - St Nicholas' Eve - in Nederland like it was last year where traditionally they celebrate the winter with over-eating and gifts to children.  Although celebrated on a different date, the traditions have a lot in common with Santa Klaus (same name! if a bit mangled) and the secular 6000-calorie aspects of our Christmas.  But as Santa Klaus has a sidekick called Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, so Sinterklaas has a companion Zwarte Piet the black-face servant. Sinterklaas arrives in town every 5th December, dressed as a bishop with a mitre on his head, often by boat down the nearest canal, traditionally on a white horse and always accompanied someone made up like a black-face minstrel: coal-black face, big red lips, huge hoopy golden ear-rings and a fuzzy black wig.  Sinterklaas is meant to look benevolent and wave his crozier around but Piet's task is to shower out pepernoten and other sweeties for the assembled children. Not for much longer though!

You see, you can't represent a black feller in a stereotypical way any more.  Although a pastiche of what a medieval catholic bishop might have looked like has not yet been deemed to be objectionable.  The Dutch, being fundamentally decent and having a notable tolerance for difference, free-thinking and doing-your-own-thing, are currently agonising about the moral dilemmas involved.  One solution is to have Piet all dressed up in colourful silks (or even more garish artificial fabrics) but made up as an escapee from Star-trek - clearly humanoid but coloured in a not-of-this-earth way [see L].  Back in July, Dutch courts determined that Zwarte Piet was offensive and stereotypical and required Amsterdam to modify the characterisation or cancel the annual parade.  The thin end of the wedge is already in: last year the official Amsterdam Piet left off the ear-rings which apparently are redolent with slavery.  Although you'd think such appendages would make people nowadays think Pirates of the Caribbean. If you're whitish you'll probably think the whole think is a storm in een kopje koffie but if you or your grandparents hail from Turkey, Surinam, Sumatra or Aruba then such antiquated nonsense might be yet another niggle at your day-to-day equanimity.  The right-wing go-back-where-you-came-from parties are on the rise in the Netherlands as elsewhere in Western Europe and they are getting into their orange singlets to slug it out with the leftist political correctness brigades.  If, from the vantage-point of Dublin or Kiev, you think the whole show looks plain silly, it's probably time you looked at the words of your national anthem Наші вороги будуть вмирати, як роса робить на сонці, or Le gean ar Ghaeil chun báis nó saoil / Le guna screach fé lámhach na bpiléar and ask if that sort of bombast has a place in a modern pluralist society.  Meanwhile you may hope that your Dutch pals are prepared to share a slab of Heineken to wash down some speculaas.

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