On Nov. 12, the Dutch Council of State court will render its verdict in a case that has shaken Dutch society. At issue is whether the city of Amsterdam should withdraw its permit for the official annual entry celebration of Sinterklaas (another manifestation of Santa Claus) and his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes.
A little history: First mentioned in a book by Dutch writer Jan Schenkman in 1850, Zwarte Pieten are usually white people with their faces painted completely black. They are dressed in Renaissance attire, carry earrings and have big, red lips. They act as helpers to Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), who personifies a Turkish bishop of 17 centuries ago. His image has through the years morphed into a non-religious patron saint of sorts for Dutch children.
Sinterklaas and his servants went on to national lore. Sinterklaasavond (Santa Claus-night) on Dec. 5 is celebrated in much the same way people in other parts of the world celebrate Christmas Eve - usually with lots of presents. Unsurprisingly, Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten are wildly popular among small children. Most adults in the Netherlands grew up with Sinterklaas evenings and have their own fond memories.
A vocal minority of several generations of immigrants, as well as political leftists, contends that Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype. Considering the popularity of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet among small children, the figure's critics maintain that the Black Pete stereotype teaches kids at an early age that minorities are inferior to whites. The vast majority of the white Dutch population - especially young parents - strongly disagrees.
The debate has been simmering in Dutch society for the last two years, but it has reached a boiling point now. Leading politicians have tried to steer clear from the contentious issue, arguing that society itself should figure out a compromise.
This has been recognized by Zwarte Piet's opponents, who, after years of fruitlessly trying to change things through public debate and lobbying political parties, have now seized on Amsterdam's official permit for the celebratory entry of Sinterklaas at the end of November of this year. The opponents say want the permit annulled.
What they actually want, of course, goes far beyond the Amsterdam celebration: They want a court to establish that Black Pete is a racist figure. This would then open the door to the complete abolition of the figure under Dutch and European law - by going through the courts, opponents can sidestep politicians. A lower court agreed that Black Pete can be perceived as a "negative stereotype" and ordered Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard Van Der Laan to reconsider the permit, thereby effectively asking the mayor to make the final judgement. Unsurprisingly, the mayor kicked the ball back to the magistrature by appealing the lower court's ruling at the Council of State, the nation's highest governance court.
Pandora's Box of Identity Politics
The discussion surrounding Zwarte Piet strikes at the core of a deeper issue. Neo-Nazis, but also popular political parties such as the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, are using the opposition to Zwarte Piet as proof that a vocal immigrant minority is trying to force its will on the general populace. This has touched deep-rooted fears.
In essence, through this debate Zwarte Piet has become a symbol of a changing society. For years, many predominantly white Dutch have feared that the influx of immigrants and the processes of globalization are undermining their culture. These fears are decidedly not confined to the Netherlands: The storm of identity conflicts is raging almost everywhere on the European continent. Whether it's the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, Fidesz in Hungary, Northern League in Italy or France's National Front, part of the popularity of these parties lies in their claim that they can stop change and somehow control life, the universe and everything.
Black Pete has become a straw man. Criticism of the figure is perceived as an attack on Dutch culture. Some have adopted the figure as a cause celebre, a way to warn against what they call the Islamization of society. This issue-hacking leads to bizarre manifestations, such as when Neo-Nazis dressed up as Zwarte Pieten to protest court proceedings on Oct. 16. During other demonstrations against Black Pete, minority protesters were physically attacked by white people who were clearly overcome by their emotions. Kind, highly educated and otherwise genteel young mothers turn into vicious cage fighters whenever Zwarte Piet is questioned in their presence.
The local Leefbaar Rotterdam party, currently part of the ruling coalition in the city, appended Zwarte Piet dolls to lampposts throughout the city center to protest what it calls the attack on the popular figure. During this year's municipal election campaign, Leefbaar Rotterdam was criticized for putting up posters saying that all people in Rotterdam must speak Dutch.
Meanwhile, customers of the leading supermarket chain in the Netherlands photographed themselves cutting up their customer loyalty cards at the shops. The reason: The chain issued a press release saying that it would also be selling Sinterklaas products without Zwarte Piet drawings on the wrapping. Thousands of customers turned to social media to voice their intent to boycott the company. On Facebook, a page was started calling for a national boycott. Meanwhile, well-known Dutch TV figures who had called for changes to Zwarte Piet's appearance have received anonymous death threats.
It remains to be seen whether the Council of State court will on Nov. 12 offer a qualitative statement on the Black Pete figure, as the opponents are seeking, or that it will find a way to refer the issue back to politicians to sort out.