Dutch Quirk #50: Disagree about Zwarte Piet all the time

HomeUltimate List of Dutch QuirksDutch Quirk #50: Disagree about Zwarte Piet all the time

Come December, many countries celebrate their traditions. The French have Papa Noël with their helper rats, and Americans have Santa with his elves. The Dutch? They have Sinterklaas with Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), and it’s a controversial topic.

The Dutch have long since been known to carry on this tradition through the years.

But in recent years, the infamous Christmas character with its black-painted skin, afro wig, red lips, and golden earrings has done more harm than good to the land of tall people.

READ MORE | Zwarte Piet: the full guide to the Netherlands’ most controversial tradition

What is it?

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it follows the Dutch Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and his mischievous sidekick, Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete”.

The two characters arrive in the Netherlands from Spain every year and are greeted with a huge parade where they dole out some sweets and gifts to little children on December 5. 

The Dutch now religiously celebrate Sinterklaas by parading Dutch cities dressed up as the Zwarte Pieten.

READ MORE: Finally: Amsterdam stops funding Sinterklaas parades containing Zwarte Piet

However, what once was a treasured tradition for the Dutch, has now become a never-ending debate on whether Zwarte Piet alludes to the notorious and racist act of blackface.

And it’s quite understandable. The idea of Santa’s little helpers climbing down a chimney in blackface doesn’t quite come across as morally just to an outsider. 😐

Why do they do it?

Many Dutch people grew up with the tradition of Sinterklaas. It was something that every kid would be extremely excited about when December came around the corner. 

Naturally, the Dutch will do anything to defend a tradition that brings some good childhood memories.

The most common argument you’ll probably come across is that Zwarte Piet is black because of the ash from going down the chimney. As if chimney soot can give someone big red lips and an afro wig?

Some people may tell you one too many times that Zwarte Piet is known to be this jolly, kind, and entertaining companion. These are all good qualities to have so, how can that be racist? Right? 🧐

Well, as an international arriving in the Netherlands around Christmas time all jetlagged from the flight, imagine seeing a white person walking around town painted in black. Echt bizar! 😳

Why is it quirky? 

The Netherlands is widely known to be diverse with people from many different ethnic backgrounds playing a vital role in the country’s cultural liberalism. 

So, on a topic as controversial as Zwarte Piet which raises questions about its connection to slavery, there’s bound to be some disagreeing going on between those that live in this tiny country.

Zwarte Piet only really came under major fire in the early 2010s when international media outlets started picking up on the story. 

It got so big that even celebrities chimed in on the debate! 🤯

READ MORE: Google steps into Zwarte Piet debate: blocks ads for ALL depictions (even Soot Piet!)

While it’s always a bit innocent to have a good internet quarrel over it, there have also been Nederlanders who protest Zwarte Piet during the parades every year, giving rise to some serious and violent disruptions from white supremacists in those years.

Should you join in? 

We live in an evolving world where many controversial things are just not acceptable anymore. There’s a growing group of people who believe that Zwarte Piet should really just vanish. 

But the good news is that the Dutch have heard peoples’ wishes and the appearance of Zwarte Piet is slowly changing to look… a little less racist, let’s say. 😬

However, just to be on the safe side, we recommend not allowing Piet costumes at your next annual holiday party.

What do you think of this Dutch quirk? Have you experienced it? Tell us in the comments below!

This article was originally published in June 2022, and was fully updated in November 2023 for your reading pleasure.

Feature Image:Depositphotos
Gaelle Salem
Gaelle Salem
Born and raised on the island of Sint Maarten, Gaelle moved to the Netherlands in 2018 to attend university. Still trying to survive the erratic Dutch wind and rain, she has taken up the hobby of buying a new umbrella every month. You can probably find her in the centre of The Hague appreciating the Dutch architecture with a coffee in one hand and a slice of appeltaart in the other.


  1. Has been a tradition for many many years, the black face comes from working in the coal mines, back in the day, people knew and understood that, let it continue, truly innocent


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