In many countries around the world, Santa Claus has helpers. We have discussed Krampus (http://www.historynaked.com/krampus/) in a previous post. However, in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Aruba and Curaçao, SinterKlaas or St. Nicholas has a different helper- Zwarte Piet or Black Pete. Zwarte Piet is depicted as a “blackamoor” from Spain dressed in a colorful Renaissance costume of pantaloons, feathered cap and ruffled shirt, curly hair, bright red lipstick and gold earrings. He travels with SinterKlaas when he arrives by boat from Spain in November and is welcomed with a parade. SinterKlaas rides through town on a white horse while Zwarte Piet distributes treats of pepernoten, kruidnoten, and strooigoed to children and amuse them with tricks and jokes. He is ostensibly SinterKlaas’ servant who also has the task of finding out if the children have been good and if they have not, kidnaps them and takes them back to Spain. That is for the really awful children. Mildly bad ones receive a switch or a lump of coal instead of presents.
Some historians and folklorists believe that the companions of SinterKlaas are related to the story of the Wild Hunt of Odin. Odin flew through the air as the leader of the Hunt on his horse Sleipnir accompanied by the two ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two were responsible for gathering information about the mortal world and take it back to Odin, much like Zwarte Piet took information back to St. Nicholas about the behavior of children. There are also medieval depictions of St. Nicholas with a chained devil, which is sometimes shown as a black devil, who is forced to aid him. The St. Nicholas of this tradition is markedly different than the SinterKlaas we are used to. He is much more forceful and meant to be feared rather than loved. This presented a problem for the Church as St. Nicholas was technically a saint and supposed to be holy. So the negative characteristics attributed to St. Nicholas were gradually shifted onto his helpers, such as Zwarte Piet. The Zwarte Piet character first appears in print in the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”) by Jan Schenkman. This introduced SinterKlaas’ arrival on a steamboat from Spain or “intocht”. This entry celebration takes place in towns around the Low Countries in November.
In modern times there is a great controversy over Zwarte Piet. The costume is done with blackface and is considered by many to perpetuate negative stereotypes about people of color. Blackface is associated with minstrel shows, which were never complimentary. In fact the tradition was criticized by a UN committee in August 2015 as promoting “discriminatory practices and stereotypes”. The Netherlands has a tricky history with colonialism. They played an integral part in the transatlantic slave trade. Leopold II was known as the butcher of the Congo, massacring 10 million Africans. That doesn’t count the amount of torture and starvation and unbelievable horrors he allowed. Many believe Zwarte Piet reinforces those negative beliefs and contributes to the discriminatory manner in which people of color are treated in the Netherlands. “Kick out Zwarte Piet” groups have been formed and protested at the intocht ceremonies in Amsterdam, Meppel and Rotterdam.
As with most protest groups, there has been a backlash against them. Many people believe the protests are unfounded as the Zwarte Piet legend was created prior to Dutch colonialism. Others say that Zwarte Piet is only black because of the soot from listening at and going down the chimneys. Some of these counter protests have turned violent with threats online of harm and death for “trying to f**k up a children’s party” in a country where Black people are only “guests”. That guy is not helping his point. Many of the people protesting are not immigrants, but Dutch born and bred.
However, the Sinterklaas from Meppel this year said it best, “Everyone is free to shout and sing and celebrate Sinterklaas in their own way. The Netherlands is also modernizing, so in the future there will be black Piets who go through dirty chimneys, some with soot on their faces and some clean-faced.” And as long as he brings candy, I’m not sure anyone will care.
Sources available on request