Black Peter (Zwarte Piet)

We in the Netherlands have an annual celebration that is related to some older, Catholic tradition but which has lost most of its religious background in recent years. What we celebrate is the name day of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children and the city of Amsterdam. My city! Saint Nicholas was a bishop and has a strong Roman Catholic background. But as I said, since the Netherlands is becoming more open towards other religions and atheism, the holy man has actually become less Christian and more a People’s person. Religious symbols are disappearing from his clothes and the connection to the Catholic church also doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a celebration that has evolved. (And which happens to be slightly related to Santa Claus.)

The celebration actually starts with the “arrival by steamboat” from Spain in one of the Dutch harbors. This always occurs on a Saturday, in the second half of November. And it’s celebrated all over the Netherlands, with a lot of time on television. Almost every child under the age of 10 will either be at the event or hang around the television because it means that from now on, until December 5th, they can place their shoes next to the fireplace, often with a drawing or little gift for the Holy Man or his horse Amerigo, and the next day the present is replaced by a nice gift or delicious candy. And the main event is on December 5, the day before the official celebration, when children are given much bigger gifts and adults are exchanging presents with one another.

It’s a great event and it makes a lot of people very happy in the Netherlands. And since the celebration has lost its religious value, even atheists and people with other religious backgrounds have no problem celebrating this day. While it’s like Christmas, it’s also different because it’s more open towards people who don’t believe what Christians believe. It’s something that no one should consider to be offensive. Yet, some people did find something they consider offensive…

Because Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas as we call him, doesn’t just arrive with his horse. He also has a lot of helpers who are dressed like 17th century pages, with lace and a feathered cap. And they are called “Zwarte Piet” or “Black Peter”. And yes, they are black. No, they’re not people of color but they are black people. Might sound politically incorrect but technically, these are people who have painted their faces black, while wearing black gloves and covering all other skin parts.

And that offends some people, today…

So, what’s the real problem? Well, historically, Sinterklaas did not have any helpers. However, in history the Good and Holy man was often followed by a demon or evil spirit who would punish those children who have behaved badly in the past year. It offered a great educational tool to make children more well-behaved until in more recent years, such stories about demons who kidnap disobedient children started to sound like child abuse. Scaring children to behave was suddenly ‘not done’. So this demonic helper or evil spirit had to be replaced by something nicer.

Around 1850, the Dutch teacher Jan Schenkman (1806-1863) started to write stories about Sinterklaas and introduced his servant, who had no name at first. (He also introduced the steamboat and told that Sinterklaas was from Spain.) This servant was the one who had to climb through chimneys to take the presents from the shoes to replace them with candy and gifts, thus his face would be black from soot. And at first, Sinterklaas only had one servant.

During the 20th century, people started to think that one servant would be nice, but multiple servants would be even nicer. So more “Pieten” (Black Peter’s) were introduced, and they all got specific tasks. A bit like the Smurfs, who also have various jobs. There’s Papa Smurf, with red clothes and a beard, who seems to resemble Sinterklaas a bit. And there are all those other smurfs and for a long, long time, they were all male. Just like the Pieten are all male. (Although some are played by women!) Indeed, it became more fun and the celebration started to become even bigger.

When you think of Piet as the servant of Sinterklaas, with soot on his face to make him black, you can’t consider the image to be offensive. Unfortunately, in the second half of the 20th century, when people became more sensitive about the Netherlands being a former slave-keeping country, some people started to relate Piet with the slaves from those times. Piet is a servant and he’s black, he must obey Sinterklaas so he’s a slave. Not the page in fine clothing as he’s normally depicted but these people decided to look at him as being a poor slave. So people started to protest about him.

And then there’s the practice of blackface, a practice that was common until the second half of the 20th century. Theaters sometimes needed actors with dark skins but they didn’t want to hire people of African descent,. Actors needed to be Caucasian so to depict colored people in theaters and movies, those actors would just paint their skin black for the duration of the movie or play. It made a nasty stereotype of the non-Caucasian people and it was considered a bad form of discrimination. It’s still not illegal but people in the USA are almost lynched when they do this for whatever reason. (Yet Eddy Murphy was allowed to “whiteface” himself for the movie “Coming to America”…)

But consider the situation in the Netherlands. Piet is no slave, but a hired servant, who is fed and clothed by his employer Sinterklaas. He is also very well-respected by the Dutch people and especially by children. Piet stands above racism because he isn’t black. He isn’t white, yellow, red, blue or purple either. He’s just a man covered with soot from too many chimneys. We can’t help that the practice of blackface caused racism in other countries but believe me, no one in the Netherlands believes that Piet is a slave from Africa or whatever. No one even thinks of this as his background, except for a small group of people who got offended by the practice of blackface in the USA, who can’t see the difference between people of African descent and people covered in soot.

Because under the soot, there’s a man just like you or me. (And yes, if you’re a woman, sometimes Piet is played by a woman too.) This person can have any skin color, but you can’t judge this person based upon his skin color, since you can’t see his skin color. Well, technically speaking… He’s covered with soot! Soot makes all men equals.

If Zwarte Piet is related to racism, it’s because he makes people realize that we’re all the same! No one treats him differently just because he’s black. No one here even dares to discriminate him based on his appearance, except for a few people who think they should be offended by this all. Some people who are too small-minded to think outside the box. Zwarte Piet is an important part of the Dutch culture and actually helps people to become more tolerant towards one another.

And yes, I realize that it’s a huge culture shock for people who are not accustomed to this practice. Just like the nudist beach is a huge shock for people who have learned to be ashamed about their bodies so they cover it up completely. Think outside that box! Open your mind and realize it’s not about skin color. It’s not about former slaves serving their masters. It’s about happiness, being merry, celebrating and lots and lots of candy. A celebration that ends with the exchange of gifts that has become so popular that people with all kinds of religious backgrounds will celebrate it.

Racism is a double-edged sword. Expats from all around the world arrive at the Netherlands and immediately relate Zwarte Piet to the practice of blackface, where Caucasian people would depict colored people to stereotype them. That’s definitely not the case here! You should know the true story behind this servant, who can be any person. And who is a person who is highly respected here, worshiped by anyone below the age of 10. There is no racism here, because even those young kids don’t see a former slave. They see a man covered with soot. They see the paint, thinking it’s soot. They know these people aren’t born with that color. Well, maybe one or two did have a dark color at birth, but not all of them. Our children learn to look beyond color. And isn’t that a tradition that you should actually keep?

There’s also some interesting reading about this subject at the site

And for those who can understand the Dutch language as it is used around 1850, take a look at “St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht“, (PDF here)which shows the original stories written by Jan Schenkman.

2 thoughts on “Black Peter (Zwarte Piet)

  1. I only believe Zwarte Piet is used as entertainment for young children. It also has an educational value since children have to behave or else they don’t get nice gifts. (Which by itself isn’t fair since poor families can’t afford the expensive gifts that wealthier families can give to their children.)

    The hairstyle isn’t afro-hair, btw. If it is, then someone made a mistake at make-up. Zwarte Piet has curly black hair, which is pretty common in Europe. Mostly in southern parts of Europe but it’s not uncommon around even Scandinavian people. Curly hair has gone out of fashion these days, but a century ago, everyone wanted curls, especially women.

    And afro-lips? Although red lipstick is used to accentuate the lips, they’re not made fuller. Women who apply red lipstick aren’t creating afro-lips either, are they? If someone does use make-up to generate afro-lips then again, they’re doing it wrong! It should be a thin, red line instead of fat lips, because dark skins make it harder to see the lips, especially for young children. By making the lips red, they become more visible and children can better see him talking. They can see his lips move.

    In no way should anyone posing as Zwarte Piet make it appear as if he’s from African descent. Quite the opposite, the Caucasian facial structure tends to be more important, but blackened with red lips instead of the regular, pale color. Quite a few people do display him in afro-style, though. And that’s just a very bad practice. I can imagine that people do confuse him with African people but those people should get their facts straight! Zwarte Piet is not from African descent!

    The original story about Saint Nicolaus suggests that Zwarte Piet isn’t an African page but a Demon, caught by Nicolaus and forced to work for the Good forces. Thus, he could be used to scare young children into believing the Devil would take them if they didn’t listen to Saint Nicolaus or when they just misbehaved in general. Others suggests that he might be a pagan God who had to subject himself to Christianity. Or maybe he’s a Berserker, a fierce warrior who painted their bodies black right before battle. Or he’s just an ordinary chimney sweeper whose face became black from soot. The suggestion that he would be an Ethiopian slave is also suggested but research show that this is unlikely to be true.
    However, the modern Zwarte Piet isn’t allowed to scare or even punish children anymore.

    But I do understand all the confusion, since many people seem to confuse Zwarte Piet with someone from Africa. Especially in cartoons you will notice that his looks are just too African. I have no explanation for this, except that cartoonists who display Zwarte Piet in that way should be held responsible for promoting racism. They should display him in the proper way, with thin lips and thick, curly hair.

    So, you are right about Zwarte Piet being depicted (sometimes) with afro-hair and afro-lips. And yes, that would be racism. But that’s also the wrong way to depict Zwarte Piet!

  2. Wim, do you seriously believe that this character is black because “He’s just a man covered with soot from too many chimneys”?

    Does that explain the afro-lips and afro-hair?

    You have a right to believe that Zwarte Piet is not harmless, but it is simply a fact that the Zwarte Piet character is modeled on the stereotype for black people in the late 1800’s.

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