Jim de Bree: Brexit, Trump and Santa Claus

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

This past week my son and I visited the Netherlands. The primary purpose of the trip was to visit friends and family.

We knew that we were going to be asked about our recent election and how the heck Donald Trump could be elected president.

In fact, the Brexit vote, the U.S. election and politics in general came up in almost every conversation.

We spent our first three days in Amsterdam. My son, being less than half my age, has considerably more energy than I do. So while I retired early, he went to local taverns and met many other people who are his age.

One night he even had a long political conversation with the hotel night manager.

Based on our conversations, we concluded that Dutch Millennials view themselves as citizens of Europe, rather than of the Netherlands. In their mind, residing in Holland is akin to our residing in California.

They are Europeans, just as we are Americans. The EU is all they have known, and for the most part it works well for them.

Amsterdam is an incredibly vibrant cosmopolitan city. Approximately half of its residents are not ethnic Dutch. English is more commonly spoken than Dutch, as most immigrants already know English and see no need to learn Dutch.

One night I tried to order dinner in Dutch, but the waiter only spoke English.

We visited my family in the coastal city of The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government and parliament, the Supreme Court and the Council of State. While most people speak English, Dutch is clearly the primary language.

I have a large family in Holland. Some of my cousins are well-educated and have college/post-college degrees. They work in well-paying careers. Other cousins work in decent blue-collar jobs.

Those who work in the well-paying careers hold political views similar to those of the Millennials. The EU is working for them. As their lives have been changed, they have reacted to the resulting disturbances by adapting and innovating.

One of my cousins moved to Belgium, where her husband is a governmental attorney in Brussels working for the EU. Another cousin is married to a coffee merchant who found that the EU’s infrastructure enhanced his ability to move goods across borders.

These folks think Brexit was terrible and that the U.S. was nuts to elect Trump.

My other cousins hold the opposite view. They see their beloved Dutch culture being compromised.

They are upset that Dutch is not the prevailing language in Amsterdam. They want to get rid of their Euros and return to the Dutch Guilder, which was a much more stable, locally controlled currency.

They see the plethora of EU rules and regulations as crippling their businesses. They are not happy with the huge levels of immigration.

But most of all, they are upset about Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is the character upon which our Santa Claus is based.

In Holland, Sinterklaas comes on the night of Dec. 5 and he has nothing to do with Christmas. He does not have an army of elves working for him. Instead he has one able assistant, a black fellow named Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”).

I always thought that Zwarte Piet was, at best, politically incorrect with racist undertones. But he is part of a Dutch tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.

Just as our Santa Claus was popularized by Coca Cola advertisements a century ago, Zwarte Piet was commercialized by the Dutch merchants in the 19th century.

Each November every Dutch town has a Sinterklaas festival where a number of Zwarte Piets entertain children and distribute candy before Sinterklaas arrives.

I attended one of these festivals many years ago in the town of Delft. The people who dressed up as Zwarte Piet were Caucasians wearing extreme amounts of dark makeup.

This year, at Amsterdam’s festival, Zwarte Piet’s complexion was considerably lighter. There is a movement to change Zwarte Piet’s name to “Colored Piet”—a name that apparently is less offensive to immigrants in the contemporary Dutch community.

My cousins find this to be the epitome of the abrogation of Dutch culture. “How can you change Zwarte Piet?” they ask.

Zwarte Piet, according to them, is not some black slave-like figure, but rather is Sinterklaas’ trusted adviser and assistant.

Everyone expressing these views confided privately with us, but they don’t feel comfortable discussing them publicly.

Next year, the Dutch will hold national elections. The candidate who is leading the polls wants to leave the EU, calling for a complete “de-Islamification” of Holland.

Polls show his party winning a small plurality, but the dynamics that fooled the U.S. pollsters are clearly present in Holland. It will be interesting to see how this election turns out.


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