Sinterklaas arrives in Istanbul with gifts in tow
WILCO VAN HERPEN
The 2014 celebration of Sinterklaas in Istanbul was a chance for merriment for Turks and Dutch people alike.Dec. 6 has finally rolled around again. The children of Dutch or Dutch-Turkish parents were waiting for the arrival of Sinterklaas at the Dutch consulate. Some of the children were colorfully dressed up like Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) or Sinterklaas (Santa Claus). Some other children waited in front of the big iron gate with cheeks as red as strawberries. They were so excited. I must say, it is quite a big thing to do for both the Dutch Consulate as well as for the Dutch community here in Istanbul to keep this old tradition alive.
In the last couple of years, more and more people have come out against the presence of a black person who has to help Sinterklaas. They say Zwarte Piet is nothing more than a slave and therefore this tradition is based on discrimination, but this is not something I completely agree with. In recent years, Zwarte Piet’s image has changed greatly. While in the past, people would threaten children with “If you’re not going to behave yourself, then I’ll tell Sinterklaas all about it and he will take you with him to Spain,” or “the Pieten of Sinterklaas know and hear everything; if I were you I would behave myself as a nice child.” However, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet have increasingly become a friend for children in recent years; he doesn’t take children with him to Spain anymore, and there is no more punishment.
Zwarte Piet was the best friend of Sinterklaas. As a matter of fact, Sinterklaas used to be a priest who loved and cared about sailors, women, children, poor people, prostitutes and many more people whose lives was not as fortunate as others’. He gave them food, money or safety – something that most priests did not care about. In time, Sinterklaas became a saint.
In a way there is a parallel between the fairy tales of the past and the Sinterklaas tradition. Most of the fairy tales as we know them are acceptable for children, but when you look at the same stories at the beginning of the 19th century, then you see a complete different, and sometimes quite cruel, story – and certainly not the kind of bed-time story I would like to tell my children.
The same has happened to Sinterklaas. In time, he and his friends have become more politically correct, but this year there has been a big discussion in the Netherlands. Should Black Piet be black or should we have people who wear colorful cloth but are of all sorts of colors. The Dutch media have paid a lot of attention to this subject, while Professor Verene Shepherd of the United Nations suggested a complete cancellation of the tradition. According to her, the tradition was transporting black people back to the time of slavery and would traumatize people. To make a very long story short, they celebrated Sinterklaas in the Netherlands this year as they did in many other countries like Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, and I did not hear anything about the professor. Unfortunately the whole story about a correct Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet has accelerated to an unexpected level, with the presenter of the Sinterklaas News in the Netherlands even receiving some serious threats.
To go back to the gate of the Dutch Consulate; I felt sorry for a little boy that was waiting a long time near the gate. It was just one minute before the arrival of Sinterklaas that his excitement got so big that he needed to go to the washroom. The little boy left his perfect spot and went inside. Exactly at that moment the Sint arrived… I felt so sorry for him. The beauty of having such a celebration at the Dutch Consulate is that it was a party not only for Dutch people but also for Turkish people. Every year the number people who are enjoying a mixed marriage in Turkey are increasing. And together with it, the number of Turkish-Dutch children is increasing. This is a nice and positive development. Those children will know all about Turkish and Dutch traditions (and there are many other people from other nations who live the same double cultural enrichment here in Turkey).
Sinterklaas took his time to enter the Dutch Consulate. Every now and then, he stopped to have a little chat with a child and, of course, not all children are accustomed to that. One Turkish mother insisted that her child would be photographed together with her and the Sint. The child who saw this giant man, with a huge hat on his head and a beard as long as his dress, approaching her started protesting. The more Sinterklaas approached her the more she started screaming. Big tears rolled down her cheeks and Sinterklaas, although used to children who are not really comfortable with his presence, did not know what to do. It was obviously too much for this poor child but I am sure that next year she will be there again and maybe pose together with the Sint.