Amsterdam mayor understands Zwarte Piet sensitivities

Supporters and opponents of Zwarte Piet – the black servants who accompany St Nicholas as part of the Sinterklaas celebrations – appeared in front of an Amsterdam city council licencing committee on Thursday.

In total, 21 opponents of the character – usually played by white people in black face make-up – are trying to have his presence banned from the traditional arrival of Sinterklaas in the city, three weeks before December 5.

A large number of Surinamese and Antillean protesters were at the town hall for the hearing, the Volkskrant reported. They say the character is discriminatory and the council should not give permission for the event in its current form.

The protest’s initiator, Quinsy Gario, also warned the council of the impact of the procession on the city’s international reputation. ‘Such open discrimination raises international hackles,’ he is quoted as saying by the Parool.

Sensitivities

A spokesman for the city’s mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, said he understands the sensitivities. The council would like to develop a form of celebration which embraces everyone, but without damaging the tradition, the spokesman said.

The licencing council said it will give its ruling as soon as possible.

The Parool reported on Wednesday afternoon that the Zwarte Piet character first joined the arrival of Sinterklaas in 1935, when six Surinamese sailors who were in town took part.

This year, some 600 Piets are expected to be part of the procession in Amsterdam on November 17.

Sinterklaas’ black servant was created in 1850 by Jan Schenkman in his book St Nikolaas en zijn knecht. The character has since become an integral part of the Dutch Sinterklaas festivities and owes his black skin to the soot he picked up after climbing down chimneys to deliver presents.