Zwarte Piet-   Tradition or Racism?

Vintage card with 'Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet' waving Photo Credit- Otomodachi
Vintage card with ‘Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet’ waving Photo Credit- Otomodachi


In many countries around the world, Santa Claus has helpers.  We have discussed 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.

Zwarte Piet costumes from the modern times Photo Credit-

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.

Demonstrators gather to protest against Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Saturday Nov. 16, 2013. Photo Credit- Peter Dejong / The Associated Press
Demonstrators gather to protest against Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Saturday Nov. 16, 2013. Photo Credit- Peter Dejong / The Associated Press

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

The Legend of Melusine

13254405_273832602958829_1405080424638412937_nIf you have read The White Queen or watched the miniseries of the same name, you have heard of Melusine.  In those stories, Jacquetta Woodville was descended from the mythical goddess and had otherworldly powers from her, which she passed onto her daughter, Elizabeth.  (And they were terrible at it as everything rebounded on them because they totally forgot the Rule of Three, but I digress).  However, Melusine was a popular myth in medieval times.  There are several versions of the story, but the meat of the story is the same.

A young nobleman gets lost in the woods while hunting and comes upon an extremely beautiful woman in the woods near a sacred spring.  In some stories, she is one among three and some she is alone, but she is always very beautiful and singing in an unearthly way.  The nobleman falls madly in love and begs the young woman to be his wife on one condition.  The young man must never disturb or look upon her on a Saturday when she bathes.  He agrees and they marry and have many children.  In some stories, the children are perfect and in others they always have something monstrous about them.  As time passes, the nobleman gets curious about what exactly his wife is doing on her Saturdays away and goes to spy on her.  What he sees is that she because a serpent from the waist down.  He is horrified and cries out, and she sees that he has broken his promise.  Melusine leaves never to return to her husband. Her parting words were, “But one thing will I say unto thee before I part, that thou, and those who for more than a hundred years shall succeed thee, shall know that whenever I am seen to hover over the fair castle of Lusignan, then will it be certain that in that very year the castle will get a new lord; and though people may not perceive me in the air, yet they will see me by the Fountain of Thirst; and thus shall it be so long as the castle stands in honour and flourishing–especially on the Friday before the lord of the castle shall die.”

In some stories, the nobleman in question is Elianas, the King of Albany or Scotland, in others it is Raymond, Count of Pointers.  One legend combines the two and says that Elianas married a girl fey girl named Pressine, who laid the don’t spy on me bathing condition on the marriage.  Elianas broke it, and Pressine took Melusine with their other children to Avalon.  She grew up and traveled to the Black Forest, and that of Ardennes, and at last she arrived in the forest of Colombiers, in Poitou. There she met Raymond and the little drama played out again.  The castles she is associated with are many-  Lusignan and Luxembourg on the Bock rock.  The story was first written down in 1393 by Jean d’Arras, secretary to the Duke of Berry, received orders from his master to collect all information attainable with reference to Melusina, probably for the entertainment of the sister of the duke, the Countess de Bar.  He called his work Le Roman de Mélusine, was translated into English about 1500, and often printed in the 15th and 16th century.  Stephen, a Dominican monk related to the Lusignans, reworked d’Arras’ work and popularized it.  The legend became so popular that the ruling families of Luxembourg, Rohan and Sassenaye altered their official family trees to claim descent from Melusine.  The Plantagenets were said to be descended from Melusine as well, and she was said to be the source of their legendary temper.  Emperor Henry VII also bragged he was descended from Melusine.  Later, Melusine became a potent symbol of Luxembourgish unity and culture against the German aggressors in World War I and World War II.

So where did the legend originate?  The story is said to be a metaphor for the medieval view of female sexuality- the duality of the virgin and the whore.  But there are older connections.  There are legends of “Dames Blanches” or White Ladies, in the woods of Normandy and Lorraine.  Nature spirits that lived near caves and natural springs.  It is believed Melusine may be derived from them.  There are similar legends in both Germany and the Netherlands.  There are also ties to the Irish Banshee as well.

No matter the source, the story of Melusine has intrigued people for generations.


Sources available on request


King John at the Battle of Crecy by Josef Mathauser (1846-1917)
King John at the Battle of Crecy by Josef Mathauser (1846-1917)

Today the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is best known as a financial, judicial and administrative centre of the European Union but during the Middle Ages the Counts of Luxembourg competed with the German Wittlesbachs and the Austrian Hapsburgs for control of the vast Holy Roman Empire. In 1312 Henry VII became the first Count of Luxembourg to wear the imperial crown and the marriage of his young son played an important part in Henry’s election.

In 1310, the 14 year old John of Luxembourg wed the 18 year old Elizabeth of Bohemia and by these diplomatic nuptials, Henry succeeded in depriving his rivals of vital territory at the heart of Europe. However, Henry had to take control of his daughter-in-law’s kingdom by force and the marriage was a disaster. Despite providing her husband with seven children (including the future Emperor Charles IV) they lived almost separate lives and in 1323 rumours of Elizabeth’s involvement in a plot against her husband began to circulate. Fearful for his crown, John kidnapped his three eldest children (Margaret, Bonne and Charles) and sent them to France. They never saw their mother again.

Though John succeeded in pacifying Bohemia, and even enlarged its boundaries, his treatment of Elizabeth did not endear him to his subjects. Always considered a foreigner by the Bohemian nobility, John wisely let viceroys govern his kingdom whilst he fought numerous campaigns in Denmark, Prussia, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and even Italy. For ten years John of Bohemia was celebrated as the perfect example of a chivalrous knight errant but in 1336, whilst crusading in the Baltic with the German Teutonic Order, he contracted the ophthalmia which left him blind.

There were many who whispered that John’s blindness must be a punishment from God but on the outbreak of The Hundred Years War in 1337 he ignored these rumours, as well as his affliction, and declared that he’d fight for France. In the tenth year of the war the ageing king, together with his son Charles, joined the French army marching to meet the English invaders at Crecy but the subsequent battle ended in humiliating defeat for the French and among the dead was John the Blind. The medieval chronicler Froissart, writing around 1370, described his gloriously chivalric end:

“… when he [John] understood the order of the battle, he said to them about him: ‘Where is the lord Charles my son?’ His men said: ‘Sir, we cannot tell, we think he be fighting.’ Then he said: ‘Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.’ They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire…”

The Chronicle of Prague [written slightly earlier in 1368] also quotes John as saying:

“Far be it that the King of Bohemia should run away. Instead, take me to the place where the noise of the battle is the loudest. The Lord will be with us. Nothing to fear. Just take good care of my son!”

Despite being totally blind for almost a decade, John of Bohemia charged the English archers and men-at-arms with predictable results. After the battle, his lifeless corpse was found surrounded by the bodies of his men and their horses – whose bridles were still tied together.

Always a restless soul, even after death John of Bohemia refused to lie peacefully in his tomb. At first the king’s mortal remains were interred in Luxembourg city’s ‘Old Abbey’ and after this monastery was destroyed in 1543, his bones were moved to the ‘New Abbey’ built nearby. During the French Revolution, the relics were entrusted to the Boch family, of Villeroy & Boch fame, who hid them in an attic. When, in 1833, the Prussian king Frederick William III visited the Rhineland (which had been awarded to Prussia after the Napoleonic Wars) Jean-Francois Boch presented him with the relics.

Frederick William, who claimed descent from John, took the bones to Kastel-Staadt, which lies on the German side of the border with Luxembourg, and had a chapel specially built to house them but still the old king could not rest in peace. In 1945, with Hitler’s Germany on the verge of defeat, the government of Luxembourg quietly liberated John of Bohemia and brought his remains to Luxembourg city’s Notre Dame Cathedral where they now lie.


Sources available on request