Zwarte Piet, The Controversial Black Servant Of The Dutch Santa Claus
A Sinterklaas celebration, which takes place on December 5. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)
Every winter, the people of the Netherlands anxiously await the arrival of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus. In recent decades, however, the focus has shifted away from the jolly, old saint with a fondness for gift-giving to Sinterklaas’s sidekick, right-hand man, and faithful companion, Zwarte Piet. For years, Zwarte Piet (also called Black Pete) was a beloved character who was nevertheless basically Sinterklaas's slave and portrayed by white people in blackface. Depending on who you ask, he represents either quaint, harmless national tradition or racial oppression and cultural insensitivity. Let's delve into the origin of the Zwarte Piet legend and explore the current controversy surrounding this Dutch holiday figure.
Zwarte Piet dressed like a Renaissance court jester. (spear-national.org)
Who Is Zwarte Piet?
In the Netherlands as well as Luxembourg, Belgium, and other parts of the world influenced by Dutch colonialism, Zwarte Piet is a black Moor from Spain who aids Sinterklaas in his tasks. He typically shows up right before Saint Nicholas Day wearing a colorful, Renaissance-inspired costume, which contrasts with Sinterklaas's red cloak and bishop-like hat. Zwarte Piet's role in the holiday festivities is to provide comic relief for children and hand out sweets.
Stories of Zwarte Piet became popular in the 19th century. (manyakoetse.com)
The Origins Of Zwarte Piet
The legend of Zwarte Piet is not nearly as old as that of Sinterklaas, which began in the 16th century. He became popular in 1850 after a teacher from Amsterdam named Jan Schenkman published a book about Zwarte Piet, but there had been sporadic references to Sinterklaas having a black companion before then, so it is likely that Schenkman didn’t invent the Zwarte Piet on his own. Some folklorists liken Zwarte Piet to the legends of Krampus and other Germanic stories about demons being captured, tamed, and forced into servitude by Saint Nicholas. From a traditional storytelling perspective, these tales of demons-turned-slaves provide a contrast to the goodness of Saint Nicholas as well as a warning to children. Thankfully, Zwarte Piet is different, because comparing racial minorities to demons is never a good look.
Sinterklaas used to be depicted as a boogeyman to scare children, but Zwarte Piet turned him into a kinder character. (iamexpat.nl)
Zwarte Piet Changed Sinterklaas For The Better
Prior to the introduction of the Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was not the kindly character he is now. His role was to scare children into behaving with his strict rules and harsh punishments. In short, the Sinterklaas of old was a grumpy old man. After Zwarte Piet arrived on the scene, however, the characterization of Sinterklaas began to change. Today, both Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are viewed as gentle, benevolent souls with big hearts and a passion for giving.
Odin was accompanied by two black ravens. (norse-mythology.org)
Zwarte Piet May Have Been Based On Odin's Ravens
Many attributes of Santa Claus/Sinterklaas seem to have been lifted directly from the Norse and Germanic myths about Odin. In those myths, the god has two large, black ravens named Huginn and Muninn who assess the population's naughtiness and niceness by spying on them and report back to Odin. Folklorists believe that the story of Sinterklaas's black assistant may have been based on the myths of Odin's ravens, but again, the evolution is troubling.
Saint Nicholas. (pinterest.com)
Was Zwarte Piet A Slave Saved By Saint Nicholas?
Saint Nicholas was said to have performed several amazing and almost magical deeds in his lifetime. One of the last ones, according to legend, was the rescue of a boy who was a slave to the court of the Babylonian Empire. The story suggests that Saint Nicholas freed the boy and returned him to his grateful parents, but in 20th-century stories, the young slave didn't stay with his parents very long after their reunion. Instead, he went to work for Saint Nicholas, becoming his lifelong sidekick. Interestingly, the older stories never mention the boy's race. It was only in the mid-1800s that people started assuming that "slave" meant "black."
Zwarte Piet shown with a sooty face, not a black one. (nltimes.nl)
Maybe Zwarte Piet Was Just Dirty
In the mid-1900s, stories about Zwarte Piet circulated that explained that this character wasn't really black after all. Instead, he was permanently covered in soot from years working as a chimney sweep in Spain and Italy.
Protesters want an end to Zwarte Piet as a blackface character. (telegraph.co.uk)
The Zwarte Piet Controversy
Over the years since Zwarte Piet's inception, society has grown more aware and sensitive to harmful cultural and racial stereotypes. A black character in a position of servitude to Santa is, to say the least, problematic, and the blackface really doesn't help. When one department store in the Netherlands opted to allow a white actor portraying Zwarte Piet to forego the face paint, however, people responded negatively to that as well.
Should the legend of Zwarte Piet remain intact or evolve with modern values? (dutchreview.com)
Changing Opinion Of Zwarte Piet
Although few Christmas celebrations in other parts of the world include him, Zwarte Piet is most controversial outside of the Netherlands. A movement is underway to rebrand Zwarte Piet as Sooty Piet, portrayed by actors of any ethnicities in soiled costumes, while others want to see the character of Zwarte Piet depicted as a black person but not a slave or servant. Another group of people want the beloved character left untouched in the name of tradition.
But what do the Dutch think about all this? According to a survey conducted in 2018, roughly 88% of Dutch people---ever the culturally lenient---did not see Zwarte Piet as a racist depiction at all, although most of them did agree that his stereotyped features could be toned down a bit.