Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and "Black Peter"

It seems that every November the same question about political correctness arises: is it okay to say “Merry Christmas” as opposed to the more inclusive “Happy Holidays”? While some businesses opt for the all-encompassing holiday wishes, others vehemently oppose getting rid of their Christmas wishes.

Most Canadians prefer the comfortable “Merry Christmas” they grew up hearing. An Angus Reid Global poll in the Ottawa Citizen shows that 92 percent of English Canadians use “Merry Christmas” over any other, while the province of Quebec was split over the usages. We are lucky that in Canada the decision to use one or the other is most often raised as idle conversation. In other places, like the United States, the battle over holiday greetings is more aggressive. South of the border, the protection of “Merry Christmas” has often been taken to state legislators. Texas passed legislation called the “Merry Christmas Bill” that permits the display of nativity scenes, menorahs, and protects the use of Judeo-Christian symbols and rhetoric. The Texan government preserved the tradition in an act of law, ensuring that Texans will say Merry Christmas for decades to come. In response to the legislation, one Texan teacher stated, “I was a little flabbergasted and a little upset that we’ve become so politically correct that we can’t call a federal holiday by its name.”

While in North America most of the debates and controversy surrounding Christmas in public spaces have centered on the use of language to describe the holiday, the Netherlands have been accused of outright racism with one particular Christmas tradition. In the Dutch Christmas tradition, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) has a companion known as Zwarte Piet, or “Black Peter.” In literature, parades, and Dutch lore, Black Peter appears as a black moor who originates from the Iberian peninsula. In its modern form, his face is always painted black and dresses in Renaissance-style garb. He typically appears in Christmas parades, usually arriving by boat (from Spain, of course), and assists Saint Nicholas with distributing candies and sweets. As Saint Nicholas’ helper, Black Peter has been depicted as less than intelligent and embodying colonial stereotypes. Beginning in the 1990s, there have been successive attempts to modify the Christmas tradition in the Netherlands, but there remains a good portion of Dutch civilians who support the use of Black Peter in Christmas celebrations. This year, however, the Dutch government responded to the accusation of perpetuating racial stereotypes by stating that Black Peter remains a tradition understood and perceived differently by all people.

The debate about Black Peter has also made its way to Canada. One of the largest Dutch Christmas celebrations in the country takes place in New Westminster, British Columbia. In this community, some have voiced opposition to the parade that depicts Black Peter in the traditional form. In 2011, the parade in New Westminster was cancelled for the first time since 1985 because the Dutch community felt the traditional figure so central, the celebration could not take place in any modified form.

Traditions can be extremely powerful and symbolic. As historians, we think traditions remain important elements in shared identities and pasts, but they must also adapt according to the contours of the present. Black Peter wouldn’t have materialized had it not been for the long gestation of Dutch lore at the hands of the Spanish and the expansion of Dutch colonial enterprises in the seventeenth century. By the 1700s, the Dutch had colonized a number of areas across the globe, including South Africa, Suriname, Indonesia, Curacao, and Aruba. Likewise, as Dutch society continues to change and becomes more integrated, traditions that may offend the thousands of Dutch-Indonesians, Dutch-Surinamese, or other new-Nederlanders require reassessment.

At the core of questions over “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” or celebrating Black Peter lies an amalgam of Pagan and Christian traditions. Black Peter, like other figures in modern Christmas celebrations, is a hybrid construction of regional folklore imbued with Judeo-Christian qualities. Of course, the choice between saying “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” is profoundly different than criticizing a tradition based on clear stereotypes and reinforcing racism in the Netherlands and abroad. When compared with the tradition of Black Peter, Canada’s holiday dilemma of language use isn’t all that bad.