– Yes please!
Two young men in colorful costumes are handing out Christmas sweets to people passing by in the Korte Lijnbaan, one of Rotterdam’s busiest shopping streets.
Colorful in all connotations of the word, as the spreaders of joy have had their faces painted black, lips large and red, and under their small velvet hats large Afro wigs are sticking out. The ‘blackface’ boys may seem a little out of place. And time. This beyond stereotypical representation has been frowned upon, to say the least, for the better part of the century.
That Sinterklaas’ slaves are black simply because they climbed down the chimney is an interesting theory. It must have been the descent to a quite extraordinary fireplace that left Zwarte Piet’s clothes and white collar spotless, but instead prepared him to join a black minstrel show as soon as the presents had been delivered.
But most of the passersby have little time to be offended by their benefactors’ ridiculous appearance. They are busy shopping – another of the many mysterious customs of the season. Because we should be nice to each other at Christmas. Giving gifts is nice. Hence, we spend billions on blinking ties, singing fishes and other ridiculous things that nobody wants, destroying the environment, disappointing each other, exhausting ourselves and going broke while we’re at it.
It’s tradition. Which means ‘established practice’. Doesn’t have to be nice, doesn’t have to be reasonable. From torturing bulls in Madrid, throwing eggs on houses at Halloween, stepping on coal in Sri Lanka. In fact, ‘tradition’ seems to be the one-word explanation for all weird, impractical, uncomfortable, intimidating, costly, boring or just stupid actions that no one can argue with.
Everything becomes a tradition if you do it enough times. For example, everyone makes New Year’s resolutions, but now breaking them has become part of the tradition.
Imagine North Korea poses another threat to use nuclear weapons;
– Why are you saying that, Kim Jong-un?
“I don’t know, it’s become tradition.”
– Or UK, why are you opposing yet another EU resolution?
David Cameron shrugs: “We always do it, it’s tradition!”
Traditions allow us to do stuff that doesn’t always make sense. The Dutch like to dress up as blackfaced slaves and threaten to abduct misbehaving children to Spain. Of course, there have been protests. A few years back they tried putting on other colors than the black, but the more politically correct Green and Red Pete never caught on.
Trying to prevent the annual spending spree has been equally unsuccessful. Jesus got presents for Christmas – so should we. Although it arguably was his Birthday the holy kings were celebrating.
But because traditions are so hard to explain, they are even harder to oppose. As the most traditional holiday of all is just around the corner, some people will start asking questions and even protest our common practices. It’s of little use, as traditions, nice or not, are almost impossible to get rid of. Black slaves in costumes will keep handing out candy, the gifts we spend our money on will end up in attics, and no New Year’s resolution will last forever. In fact, protesting traditions is another thing that makes little sense. But we keep doing that, too.