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Swart Family – Sinterklaas

Richard Groeneveld, Rob Swart and Mira Swart, 2000, Hi-8, color, sound, 15:08
Location: Helmond, Netherlands
Shown at Home Movie Day Amsterdam

Video courtesy of Beeld en Geluid (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision), www.beeldengeluid.nl

Copyright Beeld en Geluid (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision)

Thanks to: Rob Swart and family, Harry van Biessum, Lotte Belice Baltussen, and Valentine Kuypers .
Subtitles by Laurent De Maertelaer, Claudy Op den Kamp

Version without subtitles available at vimeo.com/75267815

About the Film

In this home video from 2000, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters or Black Piets) visit the home of the Swart family of Helmond, the Netherlands. That year the family hired a Saint Nicholas (with a typical Helmond accent) and Black Peters to visit but this was unusual, as most often they just “asked a neighbor to knock on the door…then run off and leave behind a big bag with presents.” Shown in the house are Rob (the grandfather, 58 years old), Sylvia (the grandmother, 61 years old), Bob (dad and child of Rob and Sylvia), Yvonne (Bob’s wife), their children Erik (6 1/2 years old) and Natasha (4 years old), Mira (mom and daughter of Rob and Sylvia), Richard (Mira’s husband), and their children Marleen (6 years old) and Stijn (3 1/2 years old). Zwarte Piet tells the Saint about the children and how they have behaved in the previous year in order to determine what sort of presents they will get, then makes small talk with the adults. When the Saint and the Zwarte Pieten  leave and are being waved goodbye with a song, Bob silently brings some bags with presents in the living room. The children then return to the living room where they are surprised by all the bags with presents, but must wait to unwrap their presents until everybody is present. While waiting, Erik plays his guitar and Marleen dances to it (this musical intermezzo being a tradition in the family).

For those of us immersed in the story of Santa Claus and his reindeer delivering presents on Christmas Eve as his elves rest at the North Pole, seeing the depictions of Sinterklaas and his companions the Zwarte Pieten is jarring because it all seems generally familiar, with the man in red and a bushy beard, but also decidedly unfamiliar in so many ways. The appearance of the Zwarte Pieten in blackface is particularly startling and problematic to people who didn’t grow up with the tradition, and increasingly it is more and more controversial to those from within Dutch culture as well, as new origin stories for the Zwarte Pieten have been created to ameliorate the racial aspects of their histories.

This video of the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition is presented as a counterpoint to the classic Christmas morning film, one of the classic tropes of North American home movies. In the standard scene kids are gathered around the Christmas tree in the living room and are excitedly opening their presents. There are occasional variations in setting and characters, but for the most part the archetype is stunningly similar across the decades and throughout America and the Western world, so much so that a Kodachrome shot of a child in pajamas tearing open wrapping paper is virtually shorthand for “home movie”. The most important difference between the versions on film and those on video is the presence of a live soundtrack, something would have been unlikely until Super 8 sound film became available in 1973. After decades of imagining what was being said in the silent films–and perhaps recreating the remembered dialog while the movie projector was running–the actual voices and actual words became not only available, but at the forefront of the scene, so much so that it nearly overwhelms some of the visuals.

For a more complete description of the Sinterklass tradition, see the St. Nicholas Center’s website [www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/netherlands]. For a gently mocking description of it from the perspective of a baffled American, see David Sedaris’s essay “Six to Eight Black Men”[www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/sedaris].

–Dwight Swanson (with Harry van Biessum and the Swart family)