British Columbia Town Dumps Dutch Christmas Tradition

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A call for cultural sensitivity and a re-understanding of historical events have led to the cancellation of a twenty-five year old tradition in New Westminster, British Columbia.

Arrival of “Sinterklaas” in New Westminster in earlier years.

Since 1985 the Dutch community, which includes many members of the Christian Reformed Church, has hosted a Sinterklaas parade at the local quay on the weekend closest to December 6.

Pressure from the African-Canadian community led the city to cancel the event. Initially a decision had been made to disallow the appearance “Zwarte Piet” (Black Peter), who was deemed culturally offensive. As pressure and misunderstanding increased, organizers decided to cancel the celebration entirely.

In past years, as a crowd of young and old gathered, a boat would arrive at the dock, and St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, as he is called by the Dutch, would disembark.

Mounting a waiting horse, the saint would proceed, bringing greetings and gifts, particularly for the children.

Sinterklaas was accompanied by one or more costumed helpers called “Zwarte Piet.”

According to Dutch tradition, Black Peter carries out the saint’s instructions for rewarding or chiding children according to their deeds of the past year.

The tradition finds its roots in St. Nicholas, who was the bishop of Myra in Turkey during the fourth century. He became the patron saint of children and gift-giving because of legends illustrating his generosity to the poor.

Following the Reformation, St. Nicholas and the early December celebration were all that remained of the remembrance of the saints. The tradition separated gift giving from Christmas observance. When people immigrated to North America, the saint became “Sinterklaas” and eventually was replaced with the secular “Santa Claus.”

The controversy centers on the helper “Black Peter.” Versions of the story vary, although the character has its roots in slavery. The traditional Spanish costume worn by Black Peter dates him to a time when Spain was at war with the Netherlands. In one version of the story that connects closely with North American Santa Claus stories, Peter’s face was black because he went down the chimney.

Hannah Vegt, a member at New Westminster CRC, has fond childhood memories of going to the quay to welcome St. Nick and Black Peter. She will miss the annual event and wonders about its cancellation.

“It bothers me that we are more concerned with political correctness than with learning about history in all its manifestations.” Vegt planned to celebrate the early gift giving tradition with friends and family.

About the Author

Jenny deGroot is a freelance media review and news writer for The Banner. She lives on Swallowfield Farm near Fort Langley B.C. with her husband, Dennis. Before retirement she worked as a teacher librarian and assistant principal. 

See comments (7)


Just as well. Traditionally, Sinterklaas came by "stoomboot" ( steam boat) from Spain to The Netherlands; he did *not* travel to New Westminster on the Pacific Coast (well, on the Fraser River, but that's close enough). It may have been a cute idea a quarter of a century ago but, folks, let it go! It's my understanding that much of the current Sinterklaas lore was fabricated by a Dutch teacher and poet, Jan Schenkman, in the early to middle 1800s, so we're not dealing with centuries-old customs (even though it may seem that way to old timers like me).

I have to agree with Hannah Vegt's comment re: political correctness, quoted in the story. Yes, Zwarte Piet was supposed to have been a Moor. And St. Nicholas represented good and Piet evil. There are countless such good vs. evil traditions in not only Western history but in all human cultures (understandabl). The tradition is far older than Tjalle Vandergraaf, another commenter here, indicates.
However, it's unlikely that Piet's blackness had negative racial, or any racial, connotations; but it undoubtedly did have religious/spiritual connotations. The Moors were Muslims -- by biblical standards worshippers of a false god (then and now, though nowdays it's very unpopular to point it out) -- and Muslims and Christians were in a life-and-death spiritual struggle during the Middle Ages. (Was Piet a converted Muslim? Hard to say. I can't remember seeing the story that explains how he got to be Sinterklaas's helper.) But apart from the Moorish thing, we still use the word "black" to refer to evil, darkness, depression, etc., and none of those usages have racial connotations.

Good fact is quit the men tradition´s thath aren´t biblical foundation. I give thanks to brave sister, and the CRC community by this action, and pray for a good time for all us in this Holyday time, God Bless you.
Here, in country, Santa Clauss only work in Commericial Center´s for take a picture with some kids.

Merry Christmas and New Happy Year of Our
Lord JesusChrist 2012,

Edgar Martinez.
Guatemala City.

First, a bit of history. Remember that this discussion is not about Sinterklaas as much as the decision by the City of New Westminster to cancel the 25-year old Sinterklaas parade from the quay to a commercial establishment, the "Holland Shopping Centre". Steamships did not become operational until the late 1700s and then only on rivers. It's not likely that the concept of Sinterklaas traveling by steamship from Spain to Amsterdam was developed before the mid 1800s, as I mentioned in my previous post. If M. Van Til has any evidence to the contrary, I'd like to see the references. As to "Zwarte Piet" representing evil, he (Piet) must have compromised his beliefs because he is represented as helping Sinterklaas. Is this not tantamount to "aiding and abetting the enemy"?
Since this article appears in The Banner, I look at it more from a religious than a culture perspective. The Sinterklaas parade is not a Christian event; it's purely secular with commercial overtones. If a minority of the citizens in the region is offended by the parade, why would CRC folk want to continue to support it? Like Hannah Vegt, I also have fond memories, going back more than 25 years, not of "going to the quay to welcome St. Nick and Black Peter," but of family celebrations on "Sinterklaasavond." In fact, we still hand out (overpriced) chocolate letters. And although I much prefer the separation, in time, between the gift giving extravaganza and the religious Christmas celebrations, this is not likely to happen.
So my point is simply this, do we continue to fight cultural and commercial battles or should we focus on bringing the Good News, unencumbered by cultural nuances, to a hurting world? If there is even one potential recipient of the Good news who is offended by a spectacle of a black man walking next to a white-guy-on-a-horse and does not understand the cultural significance, are we spinning our wheels?
Finally, the only reference to a "Nicholas" in John Calvin's "Institutes" is for Pope Nicholas. Maybe that tells us something?

Zwarte Pieten are not the antithesis of good, not sure where Van Til got that!

St. Nick was not "all that remained of the saints after the Reformation", as author de Groot said. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of Amsterdam; this is the reason why Dutch Americans/Canadians celebrate Sinterklaas. A little bit of the motherland. Surely today there are a few saints that are still remembered, other than St. Nicholas ;)

Thanks to "Let's get our fact right..." for pointing out that St Nicholas is the patron saint of Amsterdam. That may help explain why the Amsterdam teacher Jan Schenkman, the author of the relatively recent legend of Sinterklaas, chose that city for the arrival of Sinterklaas. A bit of searching on the Internet brought me to the website with the following entry, loosely translated as "[In 1850,] Jan Schenkman (1806-1863) introduced in his book "Sint-Nicolaas en zijn knecht" (Saint Nicholas and his servant) new elements: the servant, the parade, and the steamer." Although the servant was black, he was not yet called "Black Peter." After the book was published, he became integral to the tradition. Many elements of the current celebration of Sinterklaas trace their origin to the picture book by Schenkman."
As I mentioned earlier, the celebration of Sinterklaas is an enjoyable cultural event and I see nothing wrong with it being celebrated in a family setting. However, when an ethnic group turns this into a public display (as was apparently the case in New Westminster) and may cause offense at some, I think that it may be time to ship [pun intended] Sinterklaas and his entourage back to Spain, perhaps via Amsterdam.

It's a more-or-less harmless event. No, it's not religious, or really all that historical, but then, it's not racial either.

What happened is some people who go around looking for a reason to be offended decided to rain on this parade. And the only reason they were given the time of day is that this particular parade has its origins in White, European culture. If it were Muslim, Asian, African, aboriginal, or anything else, no matter how religious or what sorts of themes it celebrated, they'd still be having it.

It was a relatively harmless bit of fun, and the grievance mongers who killed it should lighten up a bit.