Black Pete

black pete by Yarek Waszul

Black Pete (‘Zwarte Piet‘) is the companion of Saint Nicholas (‘Sinterklaas,’ from which the English term ‘Santa Claus’ is derived) in the folklore of the Low Countries (primarily Belgium and the Netherlands). Like Santa Claus, Zwarte Piet is a hybrid stock character of pagan origin.

The characters of Zwarte Pieten appear only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’s feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by boat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain). The tasks of the Zwarte Pieten are mostly to amuse children, and to scatter pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed (special sinterklaas candies) for those who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools, and other places.

In other surrounding countries similar black and/or threatening characters are the companion of Saint Nicholas. For example, in Germany the character is called ‘Knecht Ruprecht’ (journeyman Ruprecht), in Hungary it is called ‘Krampusz’ (‘devilkin’ or ‘imp’) and in France and Wallonia the companion is called ‘Père Fouettard.’ However, none of these characters is depicted as a Moor: Knecht Ruprecht and Père Fouettard are bearded white servants, while Krampusz is a horned black devil. In some parts of Germany ‘Belsnickel’ is a similar figure, which is depicted as a sasquatch with a blackened and weathered face, or he wears a mask with a long red tongue. In these countries the tradition of celebrating the birthday of Saint Nicholas has not merged with Christmas.

The origin of Sinterklaas and his helpers can probably be found in the Wild Hunt (an ancient European folk myth): Wodan (Odin’s Germanic counterpart), riding the white horse Sleipnir, flew through the air as the leader of the Wild Hunt. He was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. Those helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimney – which was just a hole in the roof at that time – to tell Wodan about the good and bad behaviour of the mortals. Due to its speculative character, however, this older ‘Germanistic’ theory has little support among present-day scholars, although it continues to be popular in non-scholarly sources. At the same time, it seems clear that the Saint Nicholas tradition contains a number of elements that are not ecclesiastical in origin.

In medieval iconography, Saint Nicholas is sometimes presented as taming a chained devil, who may or may not be black. Although no hint of a devil, servant, or any other human or human-like fixed companion to the Saint is found in visual and textual sources from the Netherlands from the 16th until the 19th century, Zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe, according to a long-standing theory, originally must have represented such an enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor. This chained and fire-scorched devil somehow re-emerged in the 19th-century Netherlands in the likeness of a Moor, as a servant of Saint Nicholas.

A devil as a helper of the saint can still be found in the Austrian Saint Nicholas tradition, in the character of Krampus. The introduction of Zwarte Piet did coincide, by and large, with a change in the attitude of the Sinterklaas character. The latter had been quite severe towards bad children himself, and had in fact often been presented as a bogeyman when he was still a solitary character; moreover, some of the same terrifying characteristics that were later associated with his servant Zwarte Piet were often attributed to Saint Nicholas himself. The depiction of a holy man in this light was troubling to both teachers and priests, and sometime after the introduction of Zwarte Piet as Sinterklaas’ servant, both characters adopted a softer character.

The lyrics of older traditional Sinterklaas songs, still sung today, warn that while Sinterklaas and his assistant will leave well-behaved children presents, they will punish those who have been very naughty. For example, they will take bad children and carry these children off in a burlap sack to their homeland of Spain, where, according to legend, Sinterklaas and his helper dwell out of season. These songs and stories also warn that a child who has been only slightly naughty will not get a present, but a ‘roe,’ which is a bundle of birch twigs, implying that they could have gotten a birching instead, or they will simply receive a lump of coal instead of gifts.

In 1850, Amsterdam-based primary school teacher Jan Schenkman published the book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht’ (‘Saint Nicholas and his Servant’). This is the first time that a servant character is introduced into the Saint Nicholas narrative. The servant is depicted as a page boy or man, who appears as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors. The book also established another mythos that would become standard: the ‘intocht’ or ‘entry’ ceremony of Saint Nicholas and his servant (then still nameless) involving a steamboat. Schenkman has the two characters arrive from Spain, with no reference made to Nicholas’ historical see of Myra (Lycia, modern-day Turkey).

While in Schenkman’s book the servant was nameless, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm already made reference to a dialogue partner of Saint Nicholas with the name ‘Pieter-me-knecht’ in a handwritten, unpublished text in 1850. Moreover, writing in 1884, Alberdingk Thijm remembered that in 1828, as a child, he had attended a Saint Nicholas celebration in the house of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant and consul living in Amsterdam. On this occasion Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by ‘Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro,’ who, rather than a rod, wore a large basket filled with presents.

During the 20th century, the character of Zwarte Piet changed into a real friend of children. Zwarte Piet still caries a bag, but in the bag are sweets, which he throws around for all children to pick them from the ground. Also, the number of Sinterklaas’ servants multiplied and female Piets were included; this paradigm shift offered the possibility of creating several different Zwarte Piet characters, notably for television. During the televised yearly event, when Sinterklaas arrives by boat, he is often assisted by dozens of Piets, for example there’s a Hoofdpiet (Head Piet) who carries the book of Sinterklaas, a Rijmpiet (Rhyme Piet) and so on.

Until the second half of the 20th century, Saint Nicholas’ helper was not too bright, in line with the old colonial traditions. Once immigration started from former colonies, Zwarte Piet became a much more respected assistant of Saint Nicholas, inattentive but playful. Most of the Zwarte Pieten also gained significant skill in acrobatics. According to a popular explanation that came to prominence in the later decades of the 20th century, Zwarte Piet is a Spaniard, or an Italian chimney sweep, whose blackness is due to a permanent layer of soot on his body, acquired during his many trips through the chimneys.

The role of Zwarte Pieten has become part of a recurring debate in the Netherlands and draws negative attention from international commentators and news organizations. Since the 1990s, there have been several attempts to introduce an updated version of the character to the Dutch public, among them replacing traditional black makeup with various other shades of colors. The largest Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada, slated for 2011, in New Westminster, British Columbia, was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1985 following a debate over the inclusion of the character. Rather than remove Zwarte Piet, the organizers cancelled the festivities entirely because, as spokesperson Tako Slump of the organization said: ‘We got a lot of replies back from our customers in the Dutch community. It became pretty clear to us that we love Sinterklaas and we can’t have it without Black Peter. Those two go together.’


3 Comments to “Black Pete”

  1. You are forgetting to mention the myths surrounding Nicolas of Myrna (3rd century!), the bishop Sinterklaas is based on/named after. This Greek by birth bishop who ended up in Turkey supposedly saved a/some young Moorish (!!!) boy(s) from a terrible sentence. Some say the death sentence, unfounded. By saving the Moor (s) (some tales say it was one, some 3), they thanked Nicolas by serving him, an honor debt. The candy the ‘Black Pete’s’ throw about links to another story about Nicolas, one where some girl (s) wanted to marry but the father was too poor for a dowry. Nicolas heard this and threw some coins through a window, which landed in shoes near the fire, to help out. Hence the tossed candy, the chocolate coins, the shoe by the chimney and, the black appearance of “pete”. That the outfit he is portrayed in to this day rubs people the wrong way is strange, it is a page’s outfit, not necessarily a ‘house slave’, young boys have been portrayed in this outfit for centuries, and yes, like so many tales the images stem from renaissance. The accusation of slavery is odd, since the folklore stems from long before African slavery, or ‘modern’ slavery. In fact Nicolas lived in a time where a bishop, a Christian, was more at danger of slavery than someone of a particular race. That Pete is referred to as a “knecht” is another point of contention. Which again is odd. “Knecht” meaning squire, apprentice or help, not slave. There are several cultures that celebrate a Krampus, or Pete. Some are even on the UN’s cultural heritage protection list. Including ones where people use black face. Black Pete is not just part of Sinterklaas (the holiday) but integral to the gathering of information of good and bad kids, the cheerful young person, the giver of candy (and yes, the switch carrier for bad kids) and the more approachable of the pair.

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