Battles for Tradition

by Aaron Schwartz

In the many communities and subcultures of Amsterdam, one commonality is they shared respect and observance of their traditions. These traditions include holidays, literature, and clothing. This week’s readings share a common theme of the tension between traditionalists and those who seek to change the city’s way of life. Some readings having a common theme of the Dutch ignoring their cruel past.

Costume available for 49,95 (Powder not included)

One example of a tradition still celebrated by the Dutch is the holiday of Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is celebrated each year in December. Celebrators wear wigs and blackface to portray the Dutch companion of Saint Nicholas, despite an overwhelmingly white Dutch population. Other nations and groups have protested what they perceive as the racist portrayal of a black character by white Dutch,  combined with Dutch ignorance of slavery and colonialism. Despite these protests, the tradition and its controversies carry on with little internal Dutch protest. In her scathing essay Who Is Zwarte Piet? Writer Emily Raboteau writes about what she sees as the blatant disregard of Dutch participation in Colonialism as well as the slave trade in the eighteenth century. Raboteau notes that the Dutch were “among the last European nations to abolish slavery” (Raboteau, 144). She goes onto to say that “Zwarte Piet’s bright costume even dates from the era when the Dutch trafficked in slaves, another history my Dutch friends seemed pretty fuzzy about” (Raboteau, 146). Raboteau points to the clear lack of hindsight and knowledge of Dutch wrongdoing over the past centuries. Raboteau points out that while children carefully study the “achievements of the Dutch empire” they spend less time learning how the Dutch had “deep involvement in the triangularly transatlantic slave trade through the Dutch West India Company.” (Raboteau, 147-8). When the United Nations issued a condemnation of the holiday’s stereotypical customs, many Dutch mobilized to like a Facebook page in protest, with the page begging “Don’t let the Netherlands’ best tradition disappear” (Raboteau, 154). To the Dutch, people who celebrated Zwarte Piet were not racist people nor was the celebration an offensive stereotype. Instead, they considered their holiday as a timeless custom and tradition, devoid of race and ill meaning. This viewpoint can be shown when Raboteau tries to tell the Dutch that the holiday is racist, with some responding “they reprimanded me for importing the racism of my country and projecting it onto a children’s festival. Their history was not the same as ours. Couldn’t I see this? Zwarte Piet was a dear tradition, not an outdated practice.” (Raboteau, 145). The Dutch have largely rejected any notion that their holiday’s custom are racist or derogatory. As a result, only a minority of Dutch are willing to admit that the tradition must undergo some form of change. Even Amsterdam’s Black citizens largely reject this notion.  “Only 27 percent of black Amsterdam feels Zwarte Piet is a discriminatory character. Ninety-two percent of Dutch citizen don’t associate Zwarte Piete with slavery and 91 percent oppose any effort whatsoever to change the way he looks” (Raboteau, 153). Altogether, the Dutch have managed to largely ignore their own past, as well as that of the world in favor of their own tradition.

Some Dutch traditions continue despite overwhelming pressure to acclimate to a more modern way of living. This is evident in the Marken village where an entire village used to dress  in traditional Marken attire. However, In Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken, author Herman Roodenburg discusses how the number of villagers, specifically women has dwindled down to about two dozen as they face their customs and traditions mocked by tourists. According to Marken tradition, clothing is regarded as one of the defining aspects of one’s status and worth, and thus is treated with a great deal of care. Clothing is one of keystone familial aspects in Marken, by tradition passed through generations. Eventually the village turned into little more than a tourist attraction for visitors to ogle at the women as they went about their day-to-day lives. Most Marken villagers grew tired of being exploited and gradually left. Today, only a few elderly women continue to practice their tradition, despite having no youth to pass their traditions onto. These women persevere in the hopes of salvaging what they can of their traditions from their lives in Marken, although their youth are not interested in continuing the tradition. As Roodenburg writes, “those who continued wearing the garments did so for themselves. It was more related to their families, to their mothers and grandmothers, and to their individual life-histories than to all the heritage industry and its cultural production” (Roodenburg, 247). The quaint, quiet village has been replaced with tour buses and photo opportunities. While overtaken by the tourism industry, the remaining women are unrelenting in their desire to protect and continue their dying way of life against a world that seeks to exploit them into little more than postcards.


Another, less beloved example of Dutch tradition can be found in the Dutch literary style of abusive criticism. This centuries-old tactic of vilifying one’s enemies through the harshest words come to mind is discussed in Ian Buruma’s book Murder in Amsterdam:  Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance. In the book, Theo Van Gogh’s controversial writings are examined as part of the bullying tradition adopted by Dutch authors before him. Buruma writes that “Theo Van Gogh placed himself squarely in the tradition of abusive criticism… He was, in his own words, the national ‘village idiot’, the fat jester with a license to tell the truth” (Buruma, 98). Like controversial authors before him, Van Gogh continued with his tirades despite mounting pressure to tone down his rhetoric under threats of persecution or death. One of Van Gogh’s main targets was the religion of Islam, which he criticized extensively and harshly.  His harsh words and hateful rhetoric led to death threats that Van Gogh largely ignored. However, Theo Van Gogh was ultimately murdered by Islamic terrorist Mohammed Bouyeri. Altogether, Theo Van Gogh relished in a tradition of writing that celebrated freedom of speech using some of the most vile insults imaginable.

What these three Dutch traditions share is that they continued despite mounting pressure to change. While some of these traditions weathered controversies and death threats such as the Zwarte Piet celebrators and Theo van Gogh, respectively, they largely ignored protests and continued. Altogether, the three examples of Dutch tradition show a society with subsections that in some ways are unwilling to embrace change, despite ever increasing pressure to do so. These traditions tell of a Netherlands hesitant to break out into a globalized world that has abandoned what many of these traditions stand for. As a result, many Dutch are left to cling onto traditions from the past before they are erased with time.


  1. Buruma, Ian, Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin Books, 2006)
  2. Roodenburg, Herman “Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken,” in Reframing Dutch Culture, 245-258.
  3. “Folk Costumes From Frisia And The Dutch Islands”. Pinterest. Web. 18 June 2017.
  4. Donadio, Rachel. “Provocateur’S Death Haunts The Dutch “. N. p., 2014. Web. 18 June 2017.
  5. “Pietenpak Fluweel Populair Rood Zwart”. N. p., 2017. Web. 18 June 2017.
  6. Raboteau, Emily. “Who is Zwarte Piet?” Virginia Quarterly Review (2014): 142-155.

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