Black Peter (Zwart Piet), while now a benevolent companion of Sinter Klaas, was at one time a more sinister character. During the Middle Ages, he threatened to punish the children if they were naughty by throwing them into his sack or giving them switches (coal also?) instead of presents. Today, however, he helps Sinter Klaas distribute gifts, even offering to go down chimneys to fill the children’s shoes, thereby saving the holy Bishop from getting dirty. Black Peter, often depicted as a boy or young man, wears a Moorish costume, probably because Spain ruled over Holland during the 16th century. So Zwart Piet is a Moor. How interesting to have a black character in Dutch and Belgian Christmas folklore.
Now let’s take a brief look at Black Peter’s history:
1845: Jan Schenkman writes Saint Nicholas and his Servant; Piet is described in this book as a servant and as black, not as slave and is depicted as a dark man wearing Asian-style clothes. Steamboat travel becomes part of the mythos from this point. In the 1850 version of Schenkman’s book, they are depicted looking much as they do today. The servant gets his African origin but still has no standard name. In later editions Piet was shown in the page costume, the book stayed (with some changes) in print until 1950 and can be seen as the foundation of the current celebration, even though it did use a lot of older ideas and customs. Barring a very rare exception the relation between St. Nicholas and Pete has always been described as one between employer and employed, between boss and worker, never between owner and slave.
Anybody can be Zwart Piet: The website zoz.nl explains how you too can transform yourself into a Zwarte Piet: “a real Piet can be recognised by his black make-up, red lipstick, perm curls, frilly collar, hat and tights. We refer to Piet as he or him, but Piet can also have considerable female attributes: many helper Piets have real breasts under a loose blouse and abundant, unnecessary space in their puffy pantaloons.”
It’s easy to critisize something you don’t undertand. Some people will say that I am missing the point. The point being that this Black Peter character is demeaning because he was a slave or is a servant, or was described as evil, and he threatens to take away the bad children. I honeslty may think this role was strange even if he wasn’t black.
Frankly what bothers me the most, what I really don’t get is why Zwart Piet is portrayed by a white person in black face. There have been black people in Holland longer than this tradition, so why not have a black person play Black Peter if the Dutch and Belgians are determined to incorporate a black person into their folklore? Is it just a “legitimate” way to don blackface once a year to the delight of young children and for the sake of warm memories for the adults?
I’m not the only person who thinks this yearly display of blackface is quite inappropriate. Here are links to two others: