Friday, December 15, 2017

Fun Friday Facts #125: Zwarte Piet

I was planning to do a “Christmas figures of the world” themed post this week, but last week my friend Sarah, who manages The Office Pub in Brighton, brought to my attention the Dutch figure, Zwarte Piet or Black Peter:

Image by Sander van der Wel from Wikimedia Commons
When I was in grade school, we had lessons on Christmas around the world, in an effort to expand our little minds. We learned about how Santa comes on December 5 in the Netherlands, and how he gives naughty children lumps of coal or bundles of birch twigs (although, to be fair, no one told us that the twigs were for their parents to hit them with, even though we were country kids in the 80s and probably would have accepted this with nods and a chorus of "My daddy uses his belt"). But no one told us about Zwarte Piet, and I think that's because Zwarte Piet is, as you can see, blatantly racist. I mean, it's a white European guy who paints his face black and puts on a curly black wig, gold earrings, and bright red lipstick. It does not get more racist, at least not without some police brutality.

In the Netherlands, the feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December 5. Fans of the humorist David Sedaris (who I only got into recently myself, after a colleague suggested that his audiobooks were way better than his books and, let me tell you, they are) will know that, according to Dutch tradition, six to eight black men – the Zwarte Pieten – accompany Santa Claus when he comes to give gifts and sweets to children. Zwarte Piet is a clownish figure, who mucks it up to entertain the kids, but who is also said to listen at chimneys for intel to help Santa figure out which kids are naughty and which kids are nice. If you're naughty enough, Zwarte Piet will stuff you into his sack and he and Santa will take you back to where Santa lives in Spain, where you're probably forced to become a Zwarte Piet (I don't know for sure, because they didn't talk about this in grade school, either). Less naughty kids get the coal and/or birch twigs. Nice kids get presents and sweets.

Oh yeah, the Dutch believe that Santa Claus lives not at the North Pole, but in Spain -- Madrid, specifically. I can see why he, Santa, would prefer Spain to the North Pole. The climate is much more agreeable. Santa travels to the Netherlands by steamboat, naturally, and the Zwarte Pieten are said to be Moors, an antiquated term applied to Muslim inhabitants of Spain, Sicily, and Malta during the Middle Ages. The term has been applied to Arabs, but the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica warns that “The term ‘Moors’ has no real ethnological value.”

In any case, Zwarte Piet emerged in the Dutch tradition in the early 19th century, when it was clear to all that his depiction was meant to be that of a black African. There’s some debate as to his origins, but National Geographic reports that the character could have been inspired by a black slave purchased by the Dutch royal family in Cairo in the 19th century. The Netherlands was, of course, up to its bright blue eyeballs in the transatlantic slave trade up until 1863, when it conveniently abolished the slave trade right around the same time we did, for some reason. Once upon a time, it was common for wealthy Dutch families to purchase a black child, dress him up in the same outfit Zwarte Piet is depicted as wearing today, and then give him, the child, as a gift.

Some trace Zwarte Piet's origins back to a medieval legend in which Saint Nicholas tamed and enslaved a demon, forcing it into servitude, which honestly isn’t that much better – and also, just FYI, this is the same legend that’s used to explain the existence of Krampus in other countries, soooo…yeah. Still others have claimed that Santa freed Zwarte Piet from slavery as a child, and that he was presumably so grateful that he willingly chose to follow Santa around like a literal dog for the rest of his life, because that doesn’t sound suspicious at all. More recently, it has been suggested that Zwarte Piet isn’t black at all, but merely covered in soot from squeezing down chimneys. That would make sense, if it weren’t for the red lipstick, gold earrings, and obvious fake fro.

So, as you can imagine, Zwarte Piet has attracted some controversy in recent years, although perhaps not as much controversy as you might expect. Ninety percent of Dutch respondents to a 2013 survey said they don’t think the character is racist, and a separate 2015 survey of three-to-seven-year-olds said that they perceived Zwarte Piet to be a funny-looking clown and not, you know, a racist depiction of an actual slave. Not everyone feels that way, of course. Many members of the Dutch black community, especially the Dutch-Surinamese, Antillean, and Ghanaian communities, feel that Zwarte Piet is discriminatory, as do plenty of others who make up movements like Zwarte Piet Niet and Zwarte Piet is Racisme, seeking to get rid of Zwarte Piet. While many Dutch, especially in rural areas, cling to their traditions, schools, businesses, and municipal celebrations have been quietly altering the more problematic aspects of Piet’s appearance, or phasing him out altogether. Last year, organizers of the Amsterdam Sinterklaas celebration chose to replace Zwarte Piet with Schoorsteen, or Chimney Piet, who, instead of blackface, wears a light coating of soot


  1. I always find it interesting how different cultures view St Nick/Santa. Some are just weird!

    1. Yeah, the living in Spain thing is weird, too. I mean, I guess it makes as much sense as the North Pole, but, why Spain?