For the uninitiated, Sinterklaas can be quite jarring. The first time I saw the Dutch version of Father Christmas was a bit of a shock and some disappointment since he was basically a mishmash of a Catholic bishop and Santa Claus. He wore a long red cape, walked around with a staff like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and in place of a reindeered sleigh, rode a white horse. Even more surprising was him being surrounded by his Zwarte Piets, men – and some women – dressed in colorful elf-like costumes and faces covered entirely in blackface. They were his cheerleaders, gift-givers, and maybe the ones who made his toys. Zwarte Piet incidentally translates to Black Pete.
While that may all be very controversial, and despite my personal experiences filtered through an American perspective, the tradition continued this year and unfailingly. As is part of the festivities, chocolate letters were handed out, and this year we got our fair share. Oddly or not, my office failed to do that this year but my partner’s went all out and he came home with not a few edible alphabets. Whether or not consciously marked as ‘slaafvrij’ (‘slave-free’), with the help of some delicious Belgian chocolate, the legend of Zwarte Piet continues.