The arrival of Saint Nicholas – Sinterklaas in Dutch - was more tumultuous than ever before. He didn’t navigate smoothly into the Netherlands aboard his steamboat and then genteelly go ashore on his white horse Amerigo. He instead blew in like a hurricane on the wings of gale force winds. The kindly saint set foot on Dutch ground in the small town of Meppel in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands and was almost blown into the Amstel River in Amsterdam. The climate had been unsettled even before his arrival due to the international Black Pete debate. The United Nations, the Dutch Council of State, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Saint Nicholas news presenter Diewertje Blok have all put in their two cents worth.
But advertising agencies have wisely stayed out of the fray. They know how to tackle ‘delicate topics’ such as athlete’s foot, impotency and feminine soap. But they are steering clear of the Black Pete issue. If the Benetton campaign was still around, we’d have seen Saint Nicholas on a black horse with a White Pete in tow. But this year there was a deathly silence: Black Bleep. And maybe that’s a good thing too. The Saint Nicholas holiday on December 5th is good for a half billion euros’ extra revenue every year. That’s why marketeers want to lay low.
Albert-Heijn supermarkets issued their employees a special Black Pete manual. The traditional climbing Petes that climb up and down four floors in the atrium of Amsterdam’s top department store de Bijenkorf in the heart of Amsterdam were spray-painted gold overnight. ‘In order to highlight the department store’s premium image.’ Yeah, right. Household goods chain Blokker is keeping Pete black, but without the big lips. It turns out that Pete isn’t an African name. And the Saint Nicholas News Bulletin – yes there is a news programme devoted to Saint Nicholas while he’s is in the country – features only chimney Petes: white by birth, black by soot.
Dutch mega webshop Bol.com dared to make a little bitty Pete joke. But everybody else is living by the ethos: ‘Don’t rock the steamboat’. Advertising producers may have an image of being rebels, but in reality they’re pretty much scaredy cats. And don’t forget that when it comes to image: what goes up can come crashing down. And an image riding on the back of Saint Nicholas’ loyal horse Amerigo can tumble to the ground in an instant. But regardless of all this hoopla, the Dutch will celebrate the only real children’s holiday on December 5th. So enough already with the saint bashing. Otherwise Halloween will come in and take it over. And then we won’t throw pepper nuts, but pumpkins instead. Won’t paint our faces with soot, but instead cover them with lots of gory blood and scars. As if that’s a celebration to write home about.