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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

Father Christmas has weird mates. In November 60 people were arrested in Gouda protesting the annual arrival of Zwarte Piet, Santa’s politically incorrect helper. In light of the folk community’s recent questioning of black face Morris I noticed a similarity in argument from those defending the existence of Black Pete, with those standing up for a dancer’s right to darken their skin: it’s tradition and tradition must be preserved.

But Peter first appeared in Dutch literature in the late 19th Century, and only took hold as an opportunity for dads to dress up in the 20th. I grew up in a house older than this tradition and no-one complained when they knocked it down. So how long must a custom last before it must last forever?

There’s one major difference between black face Morris and Zwarte Piet. The latter’s origin is indisputably documented as a crude caricature of a black man. Whereas black face Morris is…

A few years ago I was walking through Shrewsbury eating an orange – something I’ve enjoyed doing for as long as I can remember. As I passed the Shropshire Bedlams dancing in front of W H Smith I overheard a small girl ask her father: “Why have they got black faces?” “I don’t know,” he replied, “It looks a bit dodgy.”

My evangelical gene tingled. “It’s because a long time ago poor people danced to earn money,” I told her. “And they had to disguise themselves so as not to get into trouble.” I began to imagine what John Kirkpatrick would say when he handed me my EFDSS gold badge for services to Border Morris.

Except it ain’t necessarily so. And without wishing to sound like a man drunkenly misquoting Jack Nicholson, I’m not sure we can handle the truth.

During a debate that raged on Facebook, the author and fount of knowledge Derek Schofield (who remains neutral on the subject) pointed out that Border Morris didn’t become part of the revival until the early ’70s. And what we know of the tradition in the 19th and early 20th Centuries is that it included features of minstrelsy and some unambiguous song lyrics that would now be an offence under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. It seems those black faces really were meant to be black faces.

And while we know that blacking up was also used as a disguise for poachers, we don’t have enough evidence to say for certain that dancers did it too.

Dancing in black face doesn’t make a person racist. Being racist makes a person racist and the distinction is hopefully clear. And whether the practice should continue or not is probably none of my business. What interests me more is the vehemence of feeling in those arguing to retain something so contentious, with so few facts to back them up. How much of that truly is about tradition and how much about our own sense of self and resistance to change?

I’m also fascinated by how naughty children in Holland were traditionally threatened with abduction to Spain, by Sinterklaas and his racially questionable pal. I’ve never been to either country but I know which sounds sunnier and has a more plentiful supply of fresh citrus fruits. It’s a wonder Dutch kids behaved at all, given the consequences.

Tim Chipping


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