In the popular winter folklore of the Low Countries, one figure stands out as a divisive and controversial character. He is Zwarte Piet, the traditional companion of the mythical Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of Santa Claus). The annual Sinterklaas Parade takes place in the towns and cities of the Netherlands in mid-November. It marks the start of a period of revelrie and celebration leading up to Saint Nicholas’ Day itself on the 6th December. Zwarte Piet can be seen pretty much everywhere during these festivities, as locals dress up in the typical costume of the character. But who is he? And why does he cause such a stir?
On a cold, drizzly November morning, during a visit to the ancient university city of Utrecht, I had a chance to see a Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet parade at first-hand. And what I subsequently learned left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable.
Saintly origins of Sinterklaas
The celebration that spawned the creation of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete in English) centres around Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Christian saint and Greek bishop. Saint Nicholas was known for his habit of secretly leaving gifts for those less fortunate, perhaps inspired by the story of the three wise men and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus. Over the centuries, tales of Saint Nicholas’ life have blended with the traditional Nativity chronicles to form the Western celebrations of Christmas we’re familiar with today, with Santa Claus as one derivative figurehead of this revered holy man. Another incarnation, Sinterklaas, remains popular in the Netherlands and many other parts of the former Holy Roman Empire. Here, Saint Nicholas Day falls on the 6th December, but celebrations begin in most Dutch towns and villages in mid November each year, featuring not only Sinterklaas and Zwart Piet, but an assortment of costumed characters, such as the Renaissance beauties below.
Who is Zwarte Piet?
Tradition states that every November, Sinterklaas travels from his home in Spain, to the Netherlands. The legend doesn’t really explain why he made his home in Spain, although it likely stems from the Spanish rule over the Netherlands from the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries. Once he arrives, he takes part in the popular Sinterklaas Parade, during which, through a band of assistants, he distributes gifts and sweets to the local children. And this is where the controversy begins. Instead of elves, Sinterklaas’ ‘little helpers’ take the form of the aforementioned Zwarte Piet. His role is generally benevolent, with the intent of spread jollity and delicious treats, such as pepernnoten (spiced biscuits) to all the well-behaved children in town. But his remit also includes ‘punishing’ children who have misbehaved with gifts of sticks and lumps of coal. In reality though – certainly in modern times – the latter aspect doesn’t happen. While it’s not uncommon for these holiday helpers to have a menacing aspect (think Krampus in alpine folklore), it’s not his behaviour that has become increasingly controversial over the years. It’s his appearance.
Above: stock image illustrating the more authentic Zwart Piet appearance
Zwarte Piet (literally ‘Black Pete’) typically appears as a black-faced individual, with a dark curly wig, red lipstick and often some gaudy earrings. His outfits, often in bright, primary colours like red, blue and yellow, usually feature an impressive ruff around the neck and a soft flat, feathered cap, typical of the Renaissance period. But it’s the connotations of black slavery, with Zwarte Piet’s caricaturised ‘exotic’ persona, which create discomfort for many people. It’s another example of the cultural insensitivity and ignorance of the past, akin to the now frowned-upon Golliwog or black-and-white minstrel figures.
The origins of the Zwarte Piet character
Why Piet looks the way he does is almost impossible to pin down. He didn’t even appear in the printed version of the Sinterklaas fable until the 1850 book ‘Saint Nicholas and his Servant’, written by Dutch teacher Jan Schenkman, but his typical clothing represents the dandy finery of late-Renaissance nobility, which pre-dates the book by at least a couple of hundred years. As for his apparent ethnicity, there have been many explanations over the years, such as him being of Moorish origin.
Others claim that his blackness is simply due to a permanent layer of soot, acquired through many trips up and down chimneys. That doesn’t hold much stock with most people, although it is an explanation that has been around for over a hundred years. Another suggestion is that in past times, those portraying the character could remain incognito by ‘blacking up’ – if, for example, they were skiving off work to take part in the parade. In which case, I’m sure any colour would have done just as well.
What many traditionalists and Zwart Piet supporters tend to gloss over, is the colonial history of the Netherlands (between the 16th and 18th centuries), during which slavery was rife. To give balance, it should be pointed out that many parts of the Low Lands, as they were called, were themselves under occupation by Spain, so it really was a time of contradicting values and behaviour. In fact, the slave trade was originally seen as unethical in the Netherlands, as it went against Christian principles. Many people initially distanced themselves from it, but ultimately it became part of the culture of the time. Whether people like to admit it or not, the slave trade during the colonial period of the Netherlands is sure to have been a considerable influence on the ethnic features of Zwart Piet.
Clearly, tales have become a little mixed up over the centuries and it’s fair to think that, like many other famous folkloric figures, he’s an amalgamation of several ideas or people.
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in Utrecht
As my two friends and I arrived in Utrecht that morning, we were blissfully unaware of the folklore of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. It was only as we began to stroll towards the city centre that we realised there was a special event in town that day. Crowds gathered and clapped, kids eamed while holding bags of sweets and horns blared intermittently from every direction. At Stadhuisbrug, where Utrecht’s old canal, or Oudegracht, adorns one of the busiest retails spots, we stopped to savour the ambience. And that’s when we first noticed the colourful characters dangling from ropes down the front of the buildings facing us.
Clutching boxed gifts, they contorted acrobatically for the locals’ entertainment. It was only after a few minutes that we noticed one of the figures had a lot of black paint on their face. Others, too, looked like they had smeared some dark make-up across their cheeks, chin and forehead. In this example, although every ‘Zwarte Piet’ wore black gloves, the intensity of the facial make-up varied and none of the participants donned the red lipstick and gold earrings.
I fully admit that I didn’t pick upon any of the symbolism associated with slavery, nor did I even recognise the characters as representing black people. My friends, who happen to be Indian, did. A classic example, I guess, of individual experiences influencing your perception of the world. But we were oblivious to the background of the event, not even knowing whether it was just a local tradition or a national celebration.
Above: It’s the Netherlands and of course, some of the Sinterklaas Parade takes place on the canals
It was only after we’d returned home that I took to researching the Sinterklaas Parade, and discovered the full extent of the cultural controversy it encapsulates. Over the decades, the character of Zwarte Piet has understandably become the subject of much heated discussion, with the Black Lives Matter movement accelerating the debate further.
Opinion of Zwarte Piet varies greatly among different ethnicities and age groups, but a recent study of youngsters between the ages of 3 and 7 clearly showed they viewed the character as a jolly fantasy figure than an actual black person. There are also certain fragments of society that are vehemently defensive of Zwarte Piet and consider attempts to phase him out nothing more that reactionary cancel culture.
And on the day we visited, there was no sign of any discord or unrest among the crowds. We had missed the beginning of the parade – Sinterklaas himself had already disappeared down a cobbled lane, but the Zwarte Pieten (plural, for there were several of them) were still busy in his wake, skipping through the throngs throwing goodies, when not hauling gifts through store windows. All to the smiles and cheers of the families and couples gathered there. But that in itself isn’t persuasive enough as an argument for continuing with a tradition that also causes a lot of hurt, fear and offence.
Above and below: An Utrecht townsman announces the presence of Sinterklaas
Past, Presents and Future
So what of the future for Sinterklaas’ problematic pal? In the muddied mix of tradition, political correctness and multiple interpretations, it’s hard to find a clear solution that appeals to everyone. In 2018, the traditional Zwarte Pieten were replaced by Schoorsteenpieten (literally ‘Chimney Peters’) at the Amsterdam Sinterklaas Parade. Rather than wearing the traditional blackface makeup that is at the heart of the Zwarte Piet controversy, the Schoorsteenpieten are only marked with light smudges of soot from bringing presents down the chimney. The other characteristics of the Pieten, such as their jovial attitudes and seemingly endless supply of cookies and sweets, remain unchanged.
Yet the unease continues to bubble and froth and over time, more changes seem likely to happen. Whether that means the unequivocal removal of Zwarte Piet and even the Schoorsteenpieten from the Sinterklaas Parade, remains to be seen.
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