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Maybe a smell set me off: the fishy brine coming from a haringhandel, the poop of the sad swans in the red-light district, or the stink of some cheese at Noordermarkt.But it wasn’t just the smells pushing me toward nausea. His boot-black minstrel face was everywhere in the run-up to Sinterklaasavond (Saint Nicholas’s Eve), which is the Netherlands’ biggest holiday and the gift-giving equivalent of Christmas.Most Dutch don’t connect Zwarte Piet to prior myths rooted in the Middle Ages that always have Saint Nicholas operating in tandem with a servant who, under different names and disguises according to time and place, personifies a tamed Satan.This domesticated devil was often depicted in chains to convey that Nicholas had shackled and enslaved him as a triumph over evil.Morning sickness served as my constant companion during the fall and winter I lived in Amsterdam.At times I would have to park my bicycle on a humpback bridge to vomit into a canal.Published in 1850, thirteen years before the Netherlands became among the last European nations to abolish slavery, the book depicted Sinterklaas with a black servant for the first time.
But nowadays, they explained, his main role was simply to make their children happy.The Dutch are often fuzzy on the details of Zwarte Piet’s history.Many believe he originates in the nineteenth-century rhyming children’s book , penned by schoolteacher Jan Schenkman.Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’s shadow (persona non grata), his servant, his slave.The locals kept insisting he wasn’t supposed to be a black man, despite his blackface guise.
As Sandew Hira, a Surinamese Dutch historian I spoke to, put it, “How can a Dutch chimney be so different from all other chimneys that a white person can go down and come out the other end as an African? She saw Zwarte Piet as a reservoir of nostalgia and good feeling; a source, not an object, of fun.