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So I’ve dabbled in a little global marketing, coordinated the odd multi-national brand roll-out and herded a few international advertising creatives in my time, all of which translates into an ability to side-step – or sometimes walk straight into – the inevitable cultural faux pas. Who knew that bare feet wouldn’t stand (pun intended) the test of the Korean brand manager? Or that a typographical poster campaign for a brand of ice-cream might not read in the multi-layered, delicious and sensual way in any other alphabet? In whose eyes may you look, bearing which flowers, for what occasion in different parts of the world? And don’t get me started on translating pictorial idioms across borders…

Cross-cultural competence, based on equal measures of sensitivity, awareness, adaptability and curiosity, is called for in many an inter-cultural situation. Not just those of governmental proportions, or even of global brand value, but those of deep-rooted celebrations, handed down from generation to generation and migrating across the world.

At any time of the year, wherever you live, you are likely to be aware of cultural events linked to the seasons or to religious beliefs and practices, that are happening around you or across the world – and many have a common heritage. Whereas the corn dollies of a British Harvest Festival (September equinox) may not quite get the publicity of the roast turkey and cranberry sauce of the respective Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada  (2nd Monday in October) or the US (4th Thursday in November), each event is linked to a festival of abundance, signifying the harvest has been brought in – at least in the northern hemisphere.

As the ghouls are chased out on the Eve of All Hallows, the tradition of “souling” and asking for alms has broadly evolved into candy treating (31st October in many countries) or tricking (“Mischief making”) in preparation for Guy Fawkes’ Night (5th November in the UK).

Now it’s time to look towards the December solstice, delight in the Advent of Christmas and remember all the legends surrounding goodly men (and women) bearing gifts in the depth of winter (or summer!). As traditional stories evolve and expand, the saintly Nick becomes the jolly Coca-Cola Santa Claus of North America, who in turn becomes the Father Christmas of Great Britain.

Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children and the character who happens to have prompted this blog piece, is a well-known figure in many European and African countries, and especially in German and Dutch-speaking communities. Known more commonly by Dutch children as Sinterklaas, the affable chap continues to make his way through the centuries, laden with oranges from Spain and treats and gifts galore. Traditionally he has been accompanied by his Zwarte Piet helpers, though modern times are calling for a cultural re-evaluation. Typically the likeable ‘blackface’ pages represent the fun and games of the celebrations, as they dish out candies for all the good children and threaten the naughty ones with a birch switch and being bundled off in a sack! However, the “naughty or nice” question now focuses on the racial discussion around the Sinterklaas helpers. Why would a boy who goes down the chimney to deliver presents come out with curly black hair and bright red lips in addition to his sooty, black face?

It just so happens that this year my husband and I chose to focus on the celebrations of the 5th December and to send out Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten treats to our family and friends instead of Christmas cards. Just as we put the last of the packages in the mail, we received a disturbing notice from the organizers of the local Dutch Sinterklaas festivities, who had been challenged over the political correctness of the cheery characters. Over subsequent days there was much media activity as the various stances became duly publicized at home and abroad. So much so that this year’s celebrations have been cancelled altogether as a result. The fact that the Zwarte Pieten shall no longer visit these shores means that the Sinterklaas steamboat will not be stopping off here, either, this year and parents will have to mollify their children’s reactions. Expectant innocence meets non-traditional modifications, in the age of cultural evaluation.

Additional musical media review of the situation.

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