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Researcher: Time to unmask Finland’s blackface Christmas tradition

The time is here for the Netherlands’ controversial Black Pete Christmas tradition, in which whites don blackface to masquerade as Santa Claus' servant. Finland has a similar seasonal blackface tradition that is rarely discussed.

Alppilan yhteislyseon tiernapojat esiintymässä Tuomarinkylän museossa 1977
Students of the Alpilla comprehensive lyseum appear at the Tuomarinkylä museum in 1977. Image: Helsingin kaupunginmuseo

The sight of a merry band traipsing around in blackface and accompanying Santa Claus costumes is nothing new in the Netherlands, where the beloved age-old Zvart piet, or 'Black Pete' tradition continues, in spite of a growing conversation around the racist tone of the practice.

Finland has a similar tradition where whites blacken their faces as part of their Christmas celebrations. The Tiernapoika or "star boy" custom is deeply rooted in some parts of the country, more so in the Ostrobothnia region of western Finland.

It is based on medieval nativity plays in which the three wise men foretell the birth of Jesus Christ and travel to see the newborn. One of them is a Moor, therefore dark-skinned, hence the blackface. In other parts of Europe, the drama plays out around Easter time. However Finns adopted the ritual from their neighbours in Sweden.

Since then, it has become an intrinsic part of some Finnish Christmas traditions. In Oulu, organisers have held a Tiernapoika competition since 1933, and a foundation has been set up specifically to maintain the tradition. However Finnish schools are also doing their part to keep the practice alive, with one of the wise men in Christmas plays appearing in blackface.

Music teacher and researcher Minja Koskela at Helsinki University’s arts-specialised Sibelius Academy said that in her opinion, the blackface figure no longer has any place in schools.

"Blackface is a racist practice; it has racist roots and even if [some people] don’t see it as racist, that’s what it is. Period," she declared.

Finnish-based activist Maryam Abdulkarim noted that blackface mocks the features and circumstances of people in a lower station in life, by creating caricatures of a minority group. Writing in Issue X, a publication of Helsinki's Arts University, she stated that the custom is based on oppression and the abuse of power.

Black Pete in the Netherlands

UK-born Netherlands-based writer Siji Jabbar noted that in many respects, the Dutch are known to be open-minded and progressive. In a piece published in The Guardian, he wrote that Black Pete is a hangover from the country’s colonial history. In the Netherlands, apart from black face paint, outsize red lips and an Afro wig, the Black Piet caricature reinforces all the stereotypes associated with Africans. He speaks the language poorly and with an odd accent, and must appear to be childlike and act like a fool.

A national debate about the racist underpinnings of the character began decades ago, but he says it has not really led anywhere.

The article mentions the playwright Mark Walraven, who spent some time doing holiday gigs in blackface as Santa’s servant or slave, Black Pete. Over time, he noticed that the performances were offensive to his dark-skinned friends and later transformed his experiences into a play that ran in theatres in Amsterdam. Walraven said that many Dutch people fear that criticising Black Pete will result in the disappearance of Santa Claus. They feel a personal attack if someone condemns the tradition.

According to Jabbar, Black Pete’s longevity reveals a broader problem with blacks in Dutch society. Although one-fifth of the population is non-white, many Dutch use a derogatory term, allochtoon, which means non-westerner, even if the individual is Dutch born, or comes from one of its colonies in Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Sint Maarten, or even from former colonies in Suriname or Indonesia. The term is also used to refer to the million-odd dark-skinned people who have settled in the country for generations. The writer said that the tendency to label these groups as outsiders affects the national climate.

Cognitive dissonance at play

By contrast in Finland, dark-skinned people have accounted for a negligible portion of the population for decades. Activist Maryam Abdulkarim said that Finnish culture is not responsible for the spread of the blackface tradition. However she noted that the Finnish context does not nullify the custom’s history.

"Cultural ownership is a relatively new concept in Finland. It has only become part of the national debate in the last few years. It is understandable that the discussion will evolve slowly," researcher Koskela pointed out.

"In terms of the school environment, the new and recently-adopted education curriculum has clear guidelines on the kinds of values teaching should impart. It clearly states that it is important to pay attention to multiculturalism and diverse backgrounds," she added.

Why do people in the Netherlands and in Finland continue the offensive blackface custom? Why are so many people convinced that it is not racist, but defend it as a tradition that only some will see as racist?

Jabbar used the term "cognitive dissonance" to explain the attachment to blackface. "The brain filters out new information (Black Pete is a racist caricature) that conflicts with what one already believes (I love Black Pete and I am not a racist)." However he said that a stubborn insistence on adhering to old traditions serves the continued stigmatisation of dark-skinned people.

"You can keep a symbolic boot on someone's neck, and it can be just as effective as doing so physically, more so, even," he wrote in The Guardian.

No blackface, no summer hymn?

In Finnish schools, music teachers are the ones who put the blackfaced Tiernapojat through their paces. According to music teacher Koskela music education in Finland is ripe for a values review. Current discussion about music teaching revolves around methodologies and pedagogy, but a debate about the role of music in shaping values would also be beneficial, she added.

Koskela said that the blackface boys and the summer hymn belted out at the end of the school year would both serve as good conversation starters. She pointed out that many people have a sense that Finland may be losing its cultural traditions.

"Of course I have absolutely nothing against tradition. But I wonder what should be done if tradition conflicts with school values of equality and democracy? These values should be taught in the education curriculum and should also be implemented on a practical level."

"If the Tiernapoika tradition is important and should be preserved, we must be able to change it so that it is not offensive to anyone. And if it cannot be changed, does it have a place in school?" Koskela queried.

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