Bizarre Holiday Traditions

Thursday, December 02, 2010 - 10:34 AM

What I enjoy most about this time of year is the tradition of season. The family time, the seasonal festivities, the food, and the Christmas story. But until now I never seriously thought about how my indulging in these sacred traditions could be an affront to someone else.

I recently learned of a holiday tradition in the Netherlands that we here in the States might find offensive. The tradition involves St. Nicholas and his helpers. St. Nic is rotund and jolly as we might expect, but his helpers are not elves but men dressed in blackface. They're called Black Peters (Zwarte Piet) and in Holland, this is a treasured long-standing tradition (albeit one that has become part of a recurring public debate).

Are there holiday traditions that you find bizarre, outdated or offensive?


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Comments [12]

w.pagenkopf from flushing, ny

Looking forward to hearing an unfamiliar opera today. Your announcer said the Met was broadcasting,
Rigoletto's, "Verdi."

Jan. 22 2011 10:29 AM
Vincent from Massapequa Park

Delores from New York

I very much liked your Christmas exhortation "This Christmas, ..let us mend a quarrel. Build peace. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a love letter. Share some treasure. Give a soft answer.........etc. While eating, drinking, buying gifts,celebrating are fine the things you mentioned are much more important.

Dec. 06 2010 05:46 PM
Dolores from New York

Thanks, Terence. You've set up rather complicated terrain here, and I wish you well. The word "bizarre" in my dictionary (first definition) is defined as
"strikingly out of the ordinary" and (later) "fantastic".

I am going to play this first definition out with a very traditional Christmas exhortation that is, I believe, strikingly 'out of the ordinary', though for myself, I keep working at it...for a lifetime perhaps.......
"This Christmas, ..let us mend a quarrel. Build peace. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a love letter. Share some treasure. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest our loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Find the time. Forgo a grudge.
Forgive an enemy. Listen. Apologize if we were wrong. Try to understand. Flout envy. Examine our demands on others. Think first of someone else. Appreciate. Be kind, be gentle. Laugh a little. Laugh a little more. Deserve confidence. Take up arms against malice. Decry complacency. Express our gratitude. Go to church. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak our love. Speak it again. Speak it still once again." (Source unknown) Pretty 'bizarre' -both definitions- don't you think? Glad you asked.

Dec. 05 2010 03:25 PM

Dolores, thank you for your comment. While this conversation may not be in keeping with the commercial /superficial aspirations of the season, it's certainly in keeping with the true meaning of Christmas. The Christmas ideal is peace for everyone. and I'm hoping this dialogue will be a small step towards that beginning.

Dec. 04 2010 11:01 AM
Dolores from New York

Reality can be positive, even if for a short period when we remind ourselves of what may be possible in the best of all worlds. We are a society bent on eating our children, and if for even a few weeks we can look in another direction, that is not Pollyanna. I believe that we can rise above our victimhood (which I claim on two counts: as an 'invisible - harmless and useless' - older adult and as a woman.) But life is larger than victimhood, or we miss alot of the beauty inherent in it - like QXR music.

Dec. 04 2010 09:46 AM
Michael Meltzer

I am in favor of good wishes. But, it is useful to know which good wishes are heartfelt and which are fiction.

Dec. 03 2010 09:55 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I see the topic as valid, though not oriented towards music. But then WQXR now has semi-regular news and even news analysis programs.

I'm not a big fan of think happy thoughts and don't mention unpleasantries. We don't live in a Norman Rockwell painting, even during Christmas. And unmentioned unpleasantries usually means maintained and protected unpleasantries. I don't see that as very Christmas spirity.

Dec. 03 2010 08:25 PM
Dolores from New York

I apologize to my black and Jewish brethren for the offensive experiences they describe. However, I do have reservations about interjecting this
negative line-of-thought into a season that is about peace and good will, a season much too short for the dramatic needs of humanity. PBS two years ago did a piece on traditional Christmas customs in various European countries that were remarkable for creativity and warmth. It was a stunning seasonal contribution to peace, good will and brother/sisterhood. Though QXR has been adept at keeping trollers out of the room, this topic, I believe, opens up a discourse that is not constructive for the season. Peace at least for a month, please?

Dec. 03 2010 06:17 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I first learned of this Dutch Christmas celebration a few years ago when I saw a "tabblo" on a picture essay site called

The picture essay had a link to an article about the local perceived history of the tradition. I left a comment and corrected a link to the story. Unfortunately that link is no longer valid, but there's another one available.

Six To Eight Black Men
By David Sedaris

Another "tabblo" has another look at the story behind the tradition with images of a recent celebration.

I'm not of African descent (or rather, relatively recent African descent since we're all of African descent) so I don't have the sense of personal affront and therefore I'm probably a little more forgiving of this tradition. I don't believe its intent is to perpetuate a demeaning stereotype but then, again, my view doesn't have a personal quality.

In my comment on the tabblo I brought up a couple of other "curious" traditions that have darker sides. "Amazing Grace" was written by a former slave ship captain. The choose-up-sides rhyme eeny-meeny also has a dark past though probably not from its ancient origin. I know the offensive version was the one I learned as a child in Canada, without knowing what the word meant.,_meeny,_miny,_moe

Do you think Al Jolson was a racist? I don't, even though his "Mammy" in black face is about as famous or infamous as any black face image. Othello is still sometimes done by whites in black face makeup. Is that racist? A racist tradition? A theatre tradition?

I have to laugh whenever I think of what seems to be a dearly missed aspect of opera - castrati. Any volunteers? I guess that wouldn't be enough. Anyone willing to volunteer a son, or was it only a slave class that was used?

Countertenors I guess aren't quite a match.

Dec. 02 2010 09:05 PM
Michael Meltzer

Correction: I must be off by one week, and must have attended the Palm Sunday service. The convention did not cut across Good Friday.

Dec. 02 2010 06:19 PM
Michael Meltzer

I think it was 1976, my little choral & organ sheet music business (1973-1978) had become nationally prominent. I was invited to provide the sheet music and the displays for the national convention of the Association of Anglican Musicians, meeting between Palm & Easter Sundays at Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
Although, like MS. Lewin, I am Jewish, I attended Easter morning service, for which the music with chorus, organ and brass was wonderful, even thrilling.
Then came the sermon, and I was treated to about 15 minutes of railing against "the perfidious Jew." It could have been 1476, or 1936 in Berlin. Quite a surprise, no later comment from my hosts and I came back home. It was a lesson.

Dec. 02 2010 05:44 PM
Robert Poda

That's an interesting comment that give one for thought. This might not be the right place for this question, but I do not see it listed for tonight and was wondering if the New York Philharmonic broadcast was on for tonight with Anne Sofie Mutter? I saw the concert a couple of weeks ago and would like to hear it again.

Dec. 02 2010 12:53 PM

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