Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is an age-old character from Dutch and Belgian folklore. He is currently being vilified by those who claim
that Black Pete is a racist tradition and a 'vestige of slavery'. They see in him 'Blackface': a racist depiction of a slave-like negro from the American South. Consequently, they use the ensuing debate as a way to blame Dutch people
of turning a blind eye to the evils of Dutch nineteenth-century colonialism. However, based on various folkloric sources on the Black Pete custom I have found that the character's origins
predate European colonialism by many centuries. This invalidates the critics' claims. Indeed, our folklore paints a picture of a fascinating tradition that is worth keeping.
Black Pete appears in the run-up to Sinterklaasavond; a nation-wide celebration that prepares the people for Saint Nicholas' nameday
Habitually, Dutch people have been performing Black Pete by applying soot or black makeup on their faces, while they dress up in
seventeenth-century page's clothes.
Certain groups of people, largely of Caribbean and/or African descent, state that when you dress up this way, you are in fact committing
a racist act that is rooted in colonial times.
Most Dutch people, however, think there is no racism involved in the Black Pete tradition.
Besides, it is first and foremost a celebration for children, they
reply; no racial discrimination is intended, so why talk about it still? Nevertheless, ensuing debates continued to be laden with emotions
and finger-pointing, rather than with facts.
A prototypical Black Pete
Moreover, for several years now, these groups have not only been debating the issue: they have organised disruptive protests
in the streets during the
traditional festivities where the folkloric Saint Nicholas and
his Petes arrive on their steamboat. In 2011 two men from Ghana and the Antilles were arrested; in 2013 and 2014 higher numbers of people
were arrested and the protests intensified. In 2014 and 2015 these groups also filed complaints against Black
Pete, and lawsuits against organisers of the annual festivities. They ultimately went to the United Nations with their
complaints, so as to have the international organisation investigate whether Black
Pete is indeed a racist element (here you find a copy
of the UN's letter to the Dutch Government about Black Pete, in which the complaints are summarised). In 2015,
this resulted in the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of
Racial Discrimination (not a committee devoted to preservation of immaterial cultural heritage) calling on the Netherlands to
change the tradition, because
is a "negative stereotype" of people of African descent (here you find a copy
of the Committee's report and recommendations).
In 2013, even the Dutch Prime Minister, Marc Rutte, was asked at a press conference what he thinks of Black Pete. Rutte, known to enjoy
playing Black Pete himself, suffised by saying that Black Pete
happens to be black, as his name indicates. "There is not much we can do about that", he concluded. The following year, Dutch documentary
maker Sunny Bergman launched her anti-Black Pete documentary entitled Our Colonial Hangover and, lastly, in 2015 CNN aired
Blackface; a documentary about Black Pete by the Afro-American documentary
maker Roger Ross Williams.
His message: "The Netherlands only has a short-term memory when it comes to its role in the history of slavery".
What is happening in the Netherlands? Isn't the Netherlands supposed to be this liberal country? And who is Black Pete anyway?
Black Pete -- le Père Fouettard in the Francophone region of Belgium -- is the Dutch and Belgian version of Saint Nicholas'
helper. This folkloric Saint Nicholas, popularly Sinterklaas, is the Dutch 'ancestor' of his slightly more obese American namesake Santa Claus. Pete hands out
presents to the children,
he wears glossy, seventeenth-century page's clothes with an equally old-fashioned ruff around his neck and an ostrich feather in his hat.
Children love him to bits. But there is one problem: his face is black as soot, he wears lipstick, has black curly hair, he wears golden
and to make things worse: his boss is a dignified, white, wise saint dressed in a red bishop's garment, with a red mitre on, and he has a
and ditto hair hanging to his shoulders.
"That's racist!", we hear from individuals from migrant communities who have great-great-great-grandparents that were often slaves.
They claim that Black Pete, by the side of Sinterklaas, is being depicted as a stereotypically dumb negro. His red lips, earrings and
oftentimes entertaining behaviour
alledgedly confirm racist prejudices. Some critics, especially people from America and individuals who identify with that country, claim Black
Pete is the same character as, what they call,
Critics also exclaim: 'Black Pete comes straightly from the slavery era and now is the time to abolish this hideous, living memory'.
Millions of unsuspecting Dutch and Belgian people -- who have been raised with Black Pete for generations and of whom tens of thousands of
people play Black Pete each year
-- are now being accused of having facilitated racism for generations. The debate is becoming more grim each year.
'Just how can they spoil such an innocent children's celebration?', people wondered. Most people in the Netherlands view Sinterklaas as an innocent yet very important
celebration: for generations, when Dutch and Belgian children ask 'Why is Black Pete black?' they reply:
'Black Pete is black of soot, because in order to leave the gifts in the people's houses
he has to descend through the chimney'.
Research and politics
A Dutch activist ethnologist of the renowned Meertens Instituut, John Helsloot, claimed in 2011 and 2012 that Black Pete is only a "recent and essentially racist phenomenon". Indeed, Helsloot found a nineteenth-century source
there is mention of a kroesharige neger (a frizzy-haired negro) by the side of Saint Nicholas.
In the eighteenth century, having a black servant was a status symbol for well-to-do Amsterdam merchants. 'Therefore, Black Pete's face has nothing to do with a slide through the chimney', Helsloot remarks.
He thus proposes that people should impersonate Black Pete only by applying "some smudges of soot on the white skin". Consequently, the socialist Amsterdam City Council member
Andrée van Es repeated in 2012 that Black Pete is a recent phenomenon, that he is racist and that he will have to disappear. She also proposes
a few 'soot smudges' (roetvegen) on Pete's face. And now the Amsterdam City Council starts to consider a makeover for Black Pete.
Let me quickly summarise the points of critique: Black Pete is not more than a nineteenth-century phenomenon; what is more, he is a nineteenth-century
black slave; Saint Nicholas is his boss; with this hierarchy in combination with his behaviour, Black Pete corresponds to white prejudices against blacks.
What does folkloric literature say?
I like reading books about folklore and to me it was always clear that Black Pete is neither racist nor a recent phenomenon. For my book
Zwarte Piet: discriminerend of
fascinerend? ('Black Pete: discriminating of fascinating?') I conducted literature research. I consulted sources that mention Saint Nicholas. Noteworthy are
Schrijnen (1915), Schwabe (1969), De Benoist (1996), Van der Ven (around 1950), Van de Graft (1978), Grolman (1931) and
Farwerck (1970). They describe a myriad of areas in Western and Central Europe where groups of men wear a soot disguise, as they operate at the side of
a Saint-Nicholas-type character.
"The folkloristic sources describe a myriad of areas in Western and Central Europe where groups of men wear a soot disguise, as they operate at the side of
a Saint-Nicholas-type character. "
These Sinterklaas companions sometimes look like a devil, or, in Germany, like a mysterious, obscure, bearded man wearing a burlap suit and a hood.
Other soot-faced characters wear animals' hides, horns and chains. Sometimes it is the Sinterklaas who merged with these bogeymen, or in other cases he is simply missing.
Nowadays, the Belgian and Dutch representations of Sinterklaas and Black Pete are rather uniform: the 'official' version is that of the red-clad bishop with his black companions.
But this folkloric custom, too, is categorised as one of the many Nicholas masquerades found in Europe. In the old days, there were many types of Nicholas
masquerades to be found in the
Netherlands and Belgium. In December, people from the Veluwe region would impersonate Black Santa Clauses (Zwarte Sinterklazen); in the east of the Netherlands there was a
wieve-goed) who would cross-dress and playfully harass women; and on the Wadden Islands in the north we still find
Klozems and Sundrums, who sometimes have black faces. They would also terrorise young women, play disguise games with the villagers, and claim
all kinds of rights. Until recently, in Friesland, there were Sintroms, covered in white sheets, accompanied by black Pieters.
According to the folkloric sources, in sixteenth-, seventeenth- and nineteenth-century Amsterdam frightful black-faced Sunderklazen
would carry faggots (bundles of twigs, bound up) and terrorise the neighbourhoods, looking for bad children.
Outside the Netherlands, in Germany, Saint Nicholas' obscure, bearded and often soot-faced companion is called Knecht Ruprecht. In the French Alsace
he is known as Hans Trapp, in Luxembourg he is known as Houseker, and in Switzerland he is all black-faced and known as
A Swiss Schmutzli;
Black Pete's Helvetian brother, carrying a faggot and a sack
Schmutzli's speech is rather basic, similar to the way Black Pete in the Netherlands used to speak. But in the Dutch context that was considered racist, so his speech was adjusted, whereas the Swiss Schmutzli could retain his specific speech.
Today, the Dutch Black Pete's red lips are criticised for that same reason, whereas the Swiss Schmutzli's red lips are not considered racist (see photograph herebelow).
Just like Black Pete Schmutzli wears a faggot and a burlap sack, and he throws nuts and apples to the children. The Dutch and Belgian
Black Pete nowadays throws
'pepper nuts' (pepernoten), 'seasoned nuts' (kruidnoten) and sweets to the children.
In Austria Krampus and
Percht do not always have black faces. They have a devilish appearance, carry baskets and chase youngsters.
Elsewhere, in Wörgl and in the Inn Valley, Tyrol, at Saint Martin's Eve (10 November) there are black-faced, horned men in scary costumes with long necks, who rub soot
into the faces of any passers-by they can get their hands on.
In other places in Europe we see annual customs where masked, young men are chasing girls with the bundles of twigs, with which they beat them on the buttocks, so as to bestow them with fertility.
Yet other winter customs show young men strolling over the lands, while they crack their whips so as to bring fertility to the soil.
If all these popular customs have a common origin -- ethnologists and historians think that this is indeed the case --
it is probable that, originally, Saint Nicholas' helpers did not have resemblance with negroes. Black Pete has too much in common with these European archetypes for him to be a watered-down imitation of an African slave.
They all carry faggots; they are often black- or dark-faced; just like Saint Nicholas they sometimes ride a grey horse; they carry a burlap sack or a basket;
The Swiss Schmutzli has red lips, too
they throw fruit and nuts to the children; they bring them gifts, and/or they frighten and hit youngsters with a faggot.
According to the sources, these customs point towards a pagan residue. Popular belief has it that Sinterklaas, on his grey horse, can fly over the roofs;
a lanky, stately figure; Sinterklaas has a long, white beard; Sinterklaas and Black Pete visit the people's homes through the chimney; at the fire place people leave
carrots and hay for the horse's nightly visits. And Pete makes a lot of noise, gets into all kinds of mischief, bangs on the doors, and particularly in the olden days he would
hit children with the faggot.
Sinterklaas and Black Pete are probably remnants of a depraved, ancient, pre-Christian Germanic Wodan cult, performed by Männerbünde (secret, military-religious fraternities). Wodan was their warrior god (in the Anglo-Saxon world one would also
refer to Wodan as Odin). In the days of yore the faggot, nuts and fruit were
their fertility symbols. In Dutch, the word roe or roede, 'faggot', means both 'bundle of twigs' and 'penis'. In pre-Christian times, these groups of men would imitate -- reenact if you will -- Wodan's
in order to invite them to come closer to their earthly lives. The Wild Hunt would consist of warriors that had fallen in battle, whose faces were black
because now they were dwelling in the Netherworld. With Wodan's blessing the men would be able to call fertility and prosperity over their communities. In the belief system of our ancestors, death and new life were closely linked.
The cult would be held during the Holy Twelve Nights, in December; at Yuletide, when the shortest day of the year ushers in the longer days of spring.
In the Middle Ages, as part of a project to dismiss pagan cults, the Church attempted to introduce the holy Father Nicholas (and elwehere Saint Martin) as the headman of the Wild Hunt, in the place of
The German Sankt Nikolaus und
They are the same characters as Kleeschen
an Houseker and le Saint Nicolas et Père Fouettard.
The dark-dressed helper has a black beard, a sack and a faggot.
The Church was, however, unable to really do away with Wodan's eight-legged grey horse Sleipnir, and thus Saint Nicholas and Saint Martin were depicted on a grey. Now the people would refer to the saints
as the Schimmelruiters (in Dutch) and Schimmelreiter (in German). Wodan was also the god of fury and wind: in some legends of northern Teutonic and Dutch Europe the grey horse would still be
reported to be flying through the skies without a rider, haunt the villages, create storms, and cause floods.
Just like Sinterklaas, Wodan would fly over the rooftops;
Wodan was a stately, lanky appearance; he had a long beard; the chimney was the channel through which the home would be in touch with the other world; Wodan and his
army of the dead would come and get food, hay and other offerings. Organised in these Männerbünde, the pagan, soot-faced or masked reenactors would also receive food, offerings and they
would also make a lot of noise in their extatic processions and dances. They would steal things from their communities (this was their religious right), they would snatch youngsters for initiation into
the fraternity (Pete's sack, with which naughty children were erstwhile threatened
to be kidnapped in,
is thought to be a memory of this custom), they would punish unlawfully behaving community members, and they would bestow fertility on the community.
Black Pete is much older than the colonial era
The Sinterklaas and Black Pete custom is derived from a cult of a soot-faced, military-religious class. Does this still make Black Pete a nineteenth-century character?
Yes, partly. He is also from the fourteenth century, the tenth century, the fifth century... So what about the critique that claims that Black Pete is a nineteenth-century slave from Africa?
critique is really a matter of projection by people whose ancestors were slaves themselves."
critique is really a matter of projection by people whose ancestors were slaves themselves. Whom the cap fits, let him wear it: their incessant references to slavery tell us more about the people
who claim this, than about history. We have seen that the hierarchy in the relations between Sinterklaas and his black companions
is not a consequence of racism or white supremacy. The hierarchy merely draws our attention to parallels with folk customs elsewhere in Europe, which remind us of the history of the Wild Hunt in which
the holy man's companions have all been coloured black in their own ways.
This critique is very modern. But the exotic appearance of the present-day Black Pete is modern, too. It was only in nineteenth-century Amsterdam when he was given this
tropical guise. The outwardly Moorish appearance may have been the result of nothing more than the inability of the people at the time, to make sense of this black shadow
from the pagan past. So people probably took the typical 'Moor' -- a prototypical (not stereotypical!) black man in seventeenth-century
garment that one was used to see in books, in exotist images and as so-called yawners on pharmacies.
In the Middle Ages, the soot-faced companion was often thought of as a devil. This was probably the consequence of a process of demonisation initiated by the Church. Conforming to
the hagiography of Saint Nicholas (and today's akathist hymn of Saint Nicholas) it was Nicholas who had cast Satan into the abyss of Hades, and on icons of the saint we can see how he manages to resist
temptations of the devils around him. One of the devilish remnants that
Black Pete had retained well into the twentieth century, was his chain. The chain can also be found with
older, pre-colonial Sinterklaas characters, like the aforementioned ancient ones in Amsterdam. They appeared in Dutch rural areas, and nowadays one can find them with
many Saint Nicholas companions elswhere in Europe. They would rattle their chains as wild, noisy bogeymen should.
The German Knecht Ruprecht
is still wearing his chain the way his Dutch brother Black Pete used to do.
Hans Trapp in Alsace carries a chain, Père Fouettard in northern France is carrying one.
And in Germany, the abovementioned obscure Knecht Ruprecht not only carries a faggot and a sack, but also a chain. It may not surprise you that the opponents of Black Pete in present-day Holland ascribe
the chain to... yes, slavery.
Some of these racially conscious critics have -- albeit superficially -- taken cognisance of the devilish layer of Plack Pete. They would claim that this old
equation with the Devil demonstrates the way white people have regarded blacks. Anathema: now the taunted African is even being labeled with the name of the Devil.
However, the folkloric history illustrates that such critics do not have the chronology of Black Pete's stratified development in the right order: like the name Nick
in English, the name
Piet - Pete - was the Devil's medieval name in Dutch. Piet, the devilish creature, existed long before its successor, the alledgedly colonial Pete of the nineteenth century. And the origin of his blackened face, we know, chronologically precedes any form of Western colonialism.
Black Pete is not 'Blackface'
Very modern is the claim that Black Pete is Blackface. Blackface?
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Blackface was a caricature of a negro, performed by white people on Southern American stages, where only whites were allowed. A white singer would make his face black -- save the area around his mouth so as to prove that he was actually white -- and sing negro songs and do funny, gawky things. Negroes were not allowed in these whites-only theatres; blackened whites were. The South was known for its imposed racial segregation. Did we, in Holland, experience imposed racial segregation?
In the movie The Jazz Singer (1927) Al Jolson
occasionally plays a Blackface. This sort of entertainment and its inherent memories of typically American racial segregation are completely foreign to our people in the Western European Lowlands.
No, we did not. Blackface is part and parcel of the American collective conscience. To us, here in the Western European Lowlands, Blackface is completely foreign. American folklore of this type usually reaches us piecemeal through American movies, but it will remain foreign. It may be too American for us to get familiar with.
Black Pete and Blackface are probably cases of convergent but mutually unrelated developments, performed with totally divergent intentions and having starkly divergent histories.
And they are not that similar: Blackface has frizzy hair, and Black Pete has curly hair;
Blackface has no makeup on and around his lips, Black Pete has lipstick and soot there; Blackface
does not have earrings in, Black Pete does; Blackface is wearing a rather modern suit, Black Pete is wearing a seventeenth-century page's costume. The sole similarity between the two is that they are being performed by whites. And ethnically white traditions happen to raise suspicions, nowadays.
Most Dutch people have never heard of Blackface. That is good, because to put Black Pete on a par with a character from the American days of Jim Crow would needlessly stigmatise this Dutch folklore.
Klaubauf in Matrei, Eastern Tyrol. Nikolaus the saint, vigourously waving his staff, is surrounded by a horde of
furry, masked bogeymen called Kleibeife. They appear in the beginning of December.
What we should acknowledge, however, is that critics will attempt to achieve just that: stigmatisation. Indeed, what matters today is image at the expense of knowledge. Why else would documentary maker Sunny Bergman take Black Pete out of his cultural context and have his rituals performed in public parks in England? In 2015, armed with cameras and microphones, she wanted to demonstrate how 'the outside world' would react to this custom. If she went into continental Europe, away from the Anglosphere, she would have encountered people who would recognise Black
Pete as the Winter Solstice figure they have known since childhood. And why else would the American documentary
maker Roger Ross Williams choose to entitle his film about Black Pete 'Blackface'? Bringing Blackface into the Black Pete debate is clearly a case of inoculating an imported 'memory' into our culture. Our culture and traditions are not rooted in the Anglosphere. Blackface is, literally, a far-fetched argument.
Conclusion: racially preoccupied critique
The contemporary critiques on Black Pete may be modern, but the arguments against him are narrow-minded and superficial. They also indicate a peculiar fixation on the days of colonialism
and intensified racial awareness on the part of the people that make these claims. This entire debate needlessly attracts attention to the ethnic minorities that have hitherto been on their
way to assimilation into the Dutch and Belgian societies.
"Bringing Blackface into the Black Pete debate is clearly a case of inoculating an imported 'memory' into our culture."
The claims are the result of a limited knowledge of history and folklore. Indeed, Black Pete is not black because of a chimney. But his subordinate position to Sinterklaas is not based on racism either. To apply only a few smudges of soot on Pete's face -- as proposed by activists -- is a bad solution for this alledgedly racist popular custom: people who perform Black Pete would be recognised by the children and the entire, centuries-old Nicholas masquerade would thus be broken up.
I really wonder why politicians and activists alike are making such radical proposals. Unfortunately, these 'solutions' receive a lot of support from
artists and writers, too, whereas in my opinion the solution lies in spreading the facts about the true character of Black Pete. He has nothing to do with colonialism. If people want recognition for the suffering their ancestors have gone through, they should start a debate about colonialism and slavery; not about a character from Dutch folklore.
Without Pete by his side, the popular Saint Nicholas character -- an all too serious, somewhat naive bishop -- would be lost. And children would lose their favourite Sinterklaas character.
Since the Sixties, Pete has stopped beating children with the faggot, and there is nothing that reminds us of the submissive negro that some people made him out to be in the past, let alone the slave his opponents wish to see in him today!
Some advertising companies do depict Black Pete with (exaggerated) negroid features. They should refrain from that. Do not give Pete swollen lips, and do not paint him with frizzy hair. They should rather give him the curls we see in the streets whenever there is a Sinterklaas parade. But whatever we do, let us keep Black Pete black-faced. Unnaturally black. Soot-black! Pete is a mythical character, not a negro.
Without a black Black Pete we would sever the continuation of an ancient tradition. Let us safeguard our precious celebration from modern, multicultural complexes and hand it down to our children in all its innocence and ancient awkwardness.