Zwarte Piet is usually a blacked-up white man or woman with big, rouged lips, a tight curly wig and dressed in bright pantaloons, a big ruff and gold earrings.
Yesterday, Dutch police arrested about 100 protesters demonstrating against Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the jolly sidekick of Dutch Saint Nicholas accused of being a racist stereotype.
Zwarte Piet first appeared in 1845 in the children’s story “Saint Nicholas and his Servant”. The Netherlands had not yet banned slavery – that would come in 1863. In the story, Sinterklaas comes from Spain by steamship bringing with him a black helper of African origin. Possibly, Zwarte Piet started life as a Moorish servant from Spain, a Turkish orphan rescued by St Nick, or a freed Ethiopian slave.
Zwarte Piet – Tamed Satan
Zwarte Piet may go back even further. Many myths rooted from the Middle Ages have Saint Nicholas operating with a servant who, under different names and disguises, personifies a tamed Satan. Zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe may have originally represented such an enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor. This chained and fire-scorched devil may have re-emerged as a black human in the early 19th-century Netherlands, as a servant of Saint Nicholas.
In Austria, Saint Nicholas is paired with the demonic, horned Krampus; in Germany he’s served by a sooty, mean farmhand named Ruprecht; in France and Luxembourg, his attendant is an evil butcher named, respectively, Père Fouettard and Housécker; in Switzerland his helper is a brown-faced, brown-robed child-beating kidnapper named Schmutzli, and in the Czech and Slovak traditions, Saint Nicholas still rides with the straight-up hairy devil.
Many Dutch people say Pete is black from the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to deliver presents – but that doesn’t explain the frizzy hair and big red lips.
Debates over whether Zwarte Piet is racist are a Christmas tradition in the Netherlands. After a particularly heated debate in 2014 other Petes were introduced for the first time: “Cheese Pete” with a yellow face, “Stroopwafel Pete” with a striped, light brown faces resembling the traditional Dutch syrup biscuit of the same, white-faced “Clown Pete” and, recently, a sooty-faced “Chimney Pete”.
For the fist time, the Dutch children’s ombudswoman has ruled that Zwarte Piet violates UN conventions and children’s rights and could incite bullying and discrimination.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.