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.