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.