Santa's helpers are not little, but they do wear blackface and goofy costumes. At least, that's the Christmas lore in the Netherlands. Santa, as portrayed every December 5th by a different beloved Dutch actor, arrives on a boat to greet crowds of children and their families in Holland. Alongside him walk a number of men now described as 'friends' in blackface, but who were once explicitly called slaves. My preferred description however is the title of David Sedaris's short comic essay on the subject: Six to Eight Black Men. The companions, all named Zwarte Piet, or "Black Pete," wear charcoal black facepaint, bright pink lipstick, and frilly outfits reminiscent of Commedia Dell'Arte clowns. This absurdly racist Christmas hallmark may also be best distilled by a title, this one from a piece in Slate that proclaims "In Holland, Santa Doesn't Have Elves. He Has Slaves." I refer to this piece for the history and controversy around Zwarte Piet, but, suffice to say, the Low Countries look uniquely racist come each December.
This Christmas-time last for me, I was struck by Holland's outlier Yule Tidings not only in Claus-related face paint, but also in this chart above from The Economist. The graph shows the predictable relationship between a country's income per capita and its anticipated Christmas gift spending. More money means more gifts. Except in one case: Holland.
Within this broad sample, the Netherlands has the lowest spending on Christmas gifts despite a GDP per capita not too far south of the United States's. It stands out clearly in the pack, stark as a painted face in a crowd.
This outlier position begs the question, 'What's Different in Holland?' and the answer back may well be Zwarte Piet. While the Atlantic chalks it up to an ethic/aesthetic of 'austerity chic' in the country, this tradition offers a potentially more concrete answer. There are two reactions to Santa's Offensive Helpers: shame or acceptance. Though still apparently a minority according to Slate, Dutch citizens that bristle at the racist caricatures might find their enthusiasm for the holiday somewhat diminished with the negative association.
On the flipside, the tradition is part of a large public event. You go to the pier with your friends and family, greet Sinterklaas on his white horse, and enjoy a day outside celebrating longstanding national pastimes. Frankly, the persistence of the almost farcically racist Zwarte Piet character and the contorted rationalizations for his look ("He's just covered in soot from coming down the chimney") are testament to how enjoyable the tradition must be. Willful ignorance that strong demands a worthwhile payout.
So, perhaps the Dutch spend less on Christmas due neither to some ethic of stylish restraint (compare to the stoic Swiss) nor to an inconvenient shame, but rather to the fact that the holiday is more communal there than elsewhere. Carols and nativity scenes aside, Christmas in the US stretches from the living room to the dining room. It's a family affair here, whereas in the Netherlands it admirably appears to be more of a community event, where one shares the holiday with neighbors as well as loved ones. Deplorable as Zwarte Piet is, he may arrive alongside a more positive broader event. Correlation is of course not causation, but one trend is certainly clear: more Zwarte Piet equals less Tickle-Me Elmo.