Unsettling Pieces

Non-Academic Pieces

The Tale of Sinterklaas: Teaching Children ‘Give to Get’

Jülide Sezer

It is that time of the year when I have to explain to my daughter why an old white man brings presents to the kids. Because in November, the Dutch white bishop, Saint Nicolas or Sinterklaas, arrives from Spain in the Netherlands. During this time, you can eat a lot of pepernotten/ kruidnotten, which are basically ginger cookies. This is when many shops start selling these cookies, and almost Christmas-looking decorations surround the buildings. It is the rising time of commercial interests, and you would see the figure of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten (black servants) all over the media.

The festivities start in November, and right after the 5th of December, Sinterklaas leaves the country. We then transition to the Christmas and New Year’s Eve vibe, which seems like the Dutch way of handling the wet and cold weather with celebrations, holidays, and family gatherings. This hypothesis might be a topic for another article, but now I am here to discuss the old white man’s tale and its repercussions for the children.

This folkloric tale aims to teach children when they give something, a drawing to the old man and a carrot to his horse; they receive something nice in return. From the middle of November till the 5th of December, children put their shoes out at night with their drawings and a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse and wait to receive sweets and/or presents from Zwarte Piet. Ideally, the Zwarte Piet, the black ‘helpers’ of Sinterklaas, come down from the chimney and leave presents and sweets for the children. I have never read or seen anything to be left for the ‘helpers’; if I am wrong, please do correct me. In the middle of November, different regions of the country welcome the old man and his servants, and their entrance is televised. The evening of the 5th of December is the ‘big night,’ called pakjesavond -packages evening- when the family members gather and open the big presents coming from the old man. He is such a nice guy, leaving kids with significant gifts before he leaves the country. 

bol.com, the Netherlands’ most commonly used webshop sends a toy magazine which allows you to scan the barcode and immediately purchase the products your children chose.

They send this poster and encourage your children to choose toys, put stickers and let Sinterklaas know about their preferences. You should hang this poster to your window so the servants can see the selected toys.












Many scholars and activists widely criticize it; contrasting the old white man with his black servants is mainly the perpetuation of racism. The old, wise white man, Sinterklaas, is always surrounded by his funny-looking, dancing, over-cheerful black servants. What does this image tell the new generation? The generation of children thinks that leaving a nice drawing, writing a poem, or creating something for someone old and wise is a pleasant gesture. And what is wrong with dancing, happy helpers around him? What is wrong with this delightful tradition? For those familiar with the Dutch (innocent) whiteness, I will not repeat the racist stereotyping here. I hope your timelines will be filled with what is wrong with it. Instead, I will focus on teaching our children that strangers can be friendly, especially old men and that being nice to someone brings us material gifts. The problem with the gift here is not about the value of the presents, be it a cookie or a dollhouse; we teach children moral values by imposing the exchange of material goods. We are telling them if we want to receive something nice, we have to give something nice. We are telling them that there is always an exchange between people, and if we wish to ‘benefit’ from any exchange, we have to give something material. Being lovely, kind, and generous without expecting anything in return is not enough. Moreover, we are teaching them that their kindness should come with a material value; it should be visible, holdable, edible, preservable, presentable, etc. Above all, we are teaching children to trust an old white man who happens to have no bad intentions but making everyone feel happy. He is bringing the whole family together in one evening, after all.

This year the story of Sinterklaas went a little bit further. It might be related to the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic affected every household last year. The government limited the number of pakjesavond and Christmas visitors. After leaving the pandemic’s stress behind, –although the pandemic is not over- this year, Sinterklaas’s entrance to the country was extraordinary. In the second week of November, I saw a video of Sinterklaas on Twitter. His ship was sinking, and he ordered his servants to save the presents. On the same day, when I picked up my daughter from her school, her friend joined us. Both five-year-old girls looked so stressed and started discussing what they had seen on the television at school. Soon I realized that the video I had seen on Twitter was also shown to the children at school. “I don’t know what happened to our presents!” My child’s friend was almost crying and wondering if they would ever receive the presents.

Over the week, the story unfolded; apparently, Sinterklaas’ ship and the presents were safe. They were going to arrive by airplane. I started to chat with my daughter and her friends during that week. I could see how they were stressed and relieved in the same week. My daughter came home bringing news about the ship and the old man, each day getting more cheerful and bringing more homework to be prepared for Sinterklaas. On top of celebrating in the households, it is also a big theme at schools. So, if you think you can ‘escape’ celebrating Sinterklaas’ arrival at home, your child’s school would not let you get away with it. So, as a parent who does not like fairy tales or ‘fooling’ your child at all, you have to learn to make your maneuvers around society’s spider-weblike traditions.

Did you notice no one, including Sinterklaas himself, was concerned with the lives of the people on the boat? Did you notice it was only the presents that were important? Did I make you think for a second about how stressful it might be for the children? Do not get me wrong; I am not suggesting children are sensitive to handle such stress. I am urging you to consider to what expense we are imposing such emotional labor to children and by encouraging them ‘to be nice, to be treated nicely in return’ what values do we teach them and which matters do we neglect? The importance of which, for instance, prioritizing material gifts over people’s lives.

Another problematic aspect of this country-wide performance is the downgrading of children’s intellect. Tooth fairy, Santa Clause, and many other adult-made-up stories aim to encourage children to become courageous and polite. I do not know how many adults have become courageous and polite with the influence of such stories. If such tales had an effect on us, why do not we all live in a ‘better’ world by now?  Most parents do not bother to put their children’s shoes outdoors; they leave them inside and fill them with sweets when the kids are asleep. So, the story varies between households; the helpers come from the chimney, they have magic to open the door and safely close it, and have black faces because coming down from the chimney makes you dirty, etc. Even if the story’s details vary from one family to another, one secret is common: You do not tell your child that Sinterklaas is not real.

What would succinctly summarize the responses I got from other parents when discussing this topic is as follows:

 “No, you are not fooling your child; this is an innocent story that teaches our children to be nice and kind. It does not have any harm. Let them have fun. If someone finds this story evil, there is something wrong with that person. When children become adults, life will be brutal anyway, so let them have some fun. Go along, chill, and enjoy; the bubble will be broken at some point anyway.”

Yes, the bubble will be broken one day, but in what expense? We, adults, teach children to be honest, fair, and kind, but we choose not to be honest with them, for the sake of their ‘fun’? To be honest, I have to be very blunt here: Children know how to have fun without the intervention of adults. They jump in the puddle; they have fun. They slide and swing, and they have fun. They run in the rain, and they have fun. They play board games with you, and they have fun. It is not complex for children to find ‘fun’ in this world. They know how to create fun; it is your adult projection of fun on children. 

It is believed that the human category is exclusive to adults. We should not limit the human category only to (certain) adults who think they know the best for children and who think children are incapable of thinking, criticizing, judging, or worrying about (adult) life. The bubbles we create to protect children are nothing but the construction of adult minds. If the adult world is so brutal, we better try to fix the adult world rather than create ‘protective bubbles’ for the children.

Children who are encouraged to focus on giving something and getting something in return do not always question the story’s details. But some children do. Last year, when my daughter was four, she started to fear that someone would break into our house at night. She had problems with falling into a deep sleep and had restless days. It took some days to figure out what was wrong, and she asked one night: How does Sinterklaas come into our house? Does he have keys? Do you talk to him? Have you met him? Is it you who puts the sweets?

This year, as the shy child she is, I see her copying the joy and excitement of her peers. She makes drawings for the old man with great enthusiasm and looks forward to receiving some sweets every night. When she finds the cookies in her shoe in the mornings, her eyes are filled with tears: “Sinterklaas is the best!” she says.

Last weekend was the time when Sinterklaas arrived in our neighborhood. All the children with big bags were running around to get pepernoten from the black-faced servants. Even though some regions canceled servants to paint their faces black, for some reason, white people loved to paint their whole faces black in our neighborhood. The second we entered the center to welcome Sinterklaas, my child started walking backward and said she did not want it. Even though she was full of excitement and “Sinterklaas is the best!” When the story became real in front of her eyes, she withdrew from the ‘fun.’ She did not like the idea of approaching the stranger and receiving cookies from jumping around black-faced people. 

When we were home, she asked later in the night, “real helpers had dirt on their faces; why the ones from today had black paint on their faces? It looked scary.”

How do you tell the story to your five-year-old?

How do you tell your child that some brilliant adults think children have no capacity to question anything? Why do we do this? This, fooling one another for the so-called sake of children? What do you tell your child when they ask you why an old man comes all the way from Spain to deliver presents to kids? Do you tell them because he is a nice guy? What do you say then, when your child looks confused and asks you again, the very repetitive five-year-old’s question, “but why?”

The answers given to this question of why continues to maintain the legacy of the old white man which relies on the neglection of the Dutch history of slavery and colonialism, children’s intellect and exploitative economic neoliberalism. In her prominent book White Innocence, Gloria Wekker unpacks the Dutch way of white racism and describes these legacies as cultural archive. The cultural archive is created with such folkloric tales. It functions as historical knowledge, which expands to the present day. Certain epistemologies pertain to sexism, racism, and colonialism, which are embedded in everyday life through the language we use and the media we consume. Consequently, the cultural archive embeds certain bodies of knowledge that pile up to function as discrimination and exclusion. In the end, what we think is ‘normal’ may not be normal. Cultural archival knowledge expands from the institutions starting with the families. Such stories build up and teach children, and future adults, norms that are hard to unlearn. They perpetuate the history of racism, sexism, capitalism, and imperialism. They teach how we are different from one another. They continue the societal order, which requires individuals to see the difference from one perspective; hierarchical. 

The story of Sinterklaas teaches children the capitalism, materialism, and the ‘give to get’ mentality. It teaches children to trust strangers; they ‘are’ nice. It teaches children to prioritize material gifts over people’s lives. It teaches them that if they are nice, material things will appear. Children do not know that their parents make an effort and spend money to buy gifts. I did not even mention the fact that this soft power urges people to spend and save money for this tradition. I do not want to mention how much money the companies make during this period. Nor do I not want to mention how children who do not receive gifts would feel excluded. This tradition teaches children to have fun and how to have fun. It may aim to nurture family bonding by buying presents. It may encourage togetherness and belonging; it may be seen as the binding factor between family members and strangers; it may bring people together over eating ginger cookies; it may function as mental support to fast forward the winter. But what does it actually do? To the individuals? What does it do to the individuals who create the crowd? What does it actually do to the story of the untold?