The latest fuss about the Dutch Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (St. Nicholas and his Moorish servant Black Peter) was discouraging enough. For those who haven’t been following the discussion, St. Nicholas is attended by a servant (often several) whose face has been blackened and whose clothing suggests the attire of Moors in the 4th century. Recently, it has been suggested that this is discriminating against people with a black skin and condoning the Dutch role in the slave trade. At first it seemed to simply be a vehicle for political catfights. Now, media and policy-makers have taken over. This year Piet’s face was painted all the colors of the rainbow, as a statement that we are a rainbow-colored nation, home to all races and creeds.
Putting aside the fact that the presence of a Moorish servant to a bishop in 4th century Myra (in present-day Turkey) is probably historically accurate, another thing disturbs me. In Austria and southern Germany, St. Niklaus is accompanied by Krampus. There, the original intention of balancing black and white: the forces of good and evil, night and day, is intact. Krampus cannot be turned into some harmless symbol of political correctness. He’s just too scary.
Now my American friends have informed me that the greeting Merry Christmas is considered to be politically incorrect these days, discriminating against all belief systems that do not center around the birth of the Christ child.
It took me a while to understand my own impatient sighs. After all, as far as religion is concerned, if anything you might call me a pagan. And I deeply honor and respect all races and belief systems. But that is exactly why I object to this approach. It provides the semblance of tolerance, without getting to the root of the intolerance. If people distrust and fear Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, or anyone else who is not of the correct persuasion or skin color, political window-dressing is not going to change that.
The root of the problem lies, in my perception, in the fact that We is so often defined as a group that includes some people (or life forms) and excludes others. And the outsiders need to be kept out or exterminated, at any cost. This is the We of adolescent groups, the ones who all wear the same clothing or listen to the same music. True adulthood means letting go of this exclusive identification and opening one’s sense of belonging to all people… to all living things in the universe.
And so this holiday season – and the rest of the year – my home and heart is opened to all life. I wish all a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyful Yule, and (in other times of the year) Blessed Diwali en Eid. And I will light a candle for Zwarte Piet, who taught me the truth about discrimination and tolerance.