In defence of Black Pete
An argument from folklore
By Marcel Bas
Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is an age-old character from Dutch and Belgian folklore. He is currently being vilified by some critics, who claim
the Black Pete tradition is racist and a 'vestige of slavery'. Being Dutch myself, I wanted to counter this allegation as well as the
that has been dominating it and the ensuing heated debate. Hence, in 2013 I wrote a book about the
matter (click here
for more information), and the current essay. Both texts should be seen as a reply to the debate and as a token of my appreciation for Black
Because I know that a glance into our folklore paints a completely different,
fascinating picture of the character. Our European folklore not only refutes the critics' claims, it also invalidates their assertion that
Black Pete is 'Blackface'.
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 Black Pete 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 earrings, 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 gracious,
"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, Blackface.
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 in which 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.
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 soot-faced Saint-Nick-Guy-in-women's-attire (Sinterklaoskerl in 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
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;
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; Sinterklaas is 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, 'faggot', means both 'bundle of twigs' and 'penis'. In pre-Christian times, these groups of men would imitate -- reenact if you will -- Wodan's Wild Hunt 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 Wodan.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Marcel Bas, Voorschoten, Netherlands.
De Benoist, Alain (1996). Les Traditions d'Europe, Nouvelle édition révisée et augmentée. Arpajon: Éditions du Labyrinthe
Farwerck, F.E. (1970). Noordeuropese mysteriën en hun sporen tot heden. Deventer: Ankh-Hermes
Grolman, H.C.A. (1931). Nederlandsche Volksgebruiken. Kalenderfeesten, naar oorsprong en beteekenis. Zutphen: W.J. Thieme & cie
Schrijnen, Jos. (1915). Nederlandsche Volkskunde, eerste deel. Zutphen: W.J. Thieme & cie
Schwabe, Erich (1969). Schweizer Volksbräuche. Zürich: Silva Verlag
Van de Graft, C. Catharina & De Haan, Tj. W. R. (1978). Nederlandse volksgebruiken bij hoogtijdagen. Utrecht: Prisma-boeken
Van der Ven, D.J. (around 1950). Ons eigen Volk in het Feestelijk Jaar. Kampen: J.H. Kok n.v.
Helsloot, J. (2006) De oudst bekende naam van Zwarte Piet: Pieter-mê-knecht (1850). Geraadpleeg op 1 december 2010.
More about the debate in English:
(Russia Today / RT)
(Russia Today / RT)
28 November 2015