It’s that time of year again where a heavy discussion erupts in my country. It seems to come sooner every year but I blame that on the supermarkets for putting those damn pepernoten (a typically Dutch delicacy) on their shelves earlier and earlier each year. Before you know it you can buy them everywhere all year round and that will take away all the fun of it but ohh well, I’m straying here.
Long story short: On the 5th of December we celebrate what we call ‘pakjesavond’ present-night and it is said to be the birthday of Sinterklaas ‘Saint Nicholas’ or ‘the Good Holy Man’. Children get to sing songs and Sinterklaas and his helpers, de Zwarte Pieten/the Black Petes, will come by to visit. Sinterklaas will have a look in his big book to see if the children have been good or bad and if they were good they get to open their presents. Sounds familiar??? Yes, the Dutch pilgrims took this tradition with them when they travelled to the States and it got merged into what we now know as Santa Claus. But again, I’m straying here, this is not about Santa
The discussion is not so much about the good holy man but has to do everything with his helpers.
I will try to stay with basic facts and theory here so you could develop your own opinion. Plus I have to admit that my opinion about the matter is scattered all over the place but I will come to that after the basic facts.
You can trace the celebration of Sinterklaas back to two distinct events or characters. Pre-Christianity: the Germanic god Odin (also known as Wodan) and Post-Christianity: the Byzantine (now known as Turkey) Bishop Nicholas of Myra. Both of them contributed to the imagery of what we now call Sinterklaas.
Odin, for example, is often portrayed with a long white beard, a cape and a mitre/hat on his head. He would ride through the sky on a horse with eight legs called ‘Sleipnir’ and he would hold a spear with a snake at its end. He was accompanied by two black raven who would fly over his subjects to see who was misbehaving and report this back to Odin. The people would make offerings in his name such as pigs and other livestock.
Then there’s Nicholas of Myra, the Byzantine Bishop. Nicholas is thought to be born somewhere around 280 AD and he died on the 6th of December 342 AD, which is why the 6th of December became his Nameday. There are many legends around this bishop that have influenced the modern day celebration of Sinterklaas. One of the distinct ones is the legend of Aurea.
It was told that a very poor man had three daughters. In order for them to marry a good husband the father needed to have a dowry for each and every one of them. The bigger the dowry the better the husband and it would ultimately save them from slavery. However, because this man was so poor he could not get these dowries together on time. On the night before these women would become slaves a pouch with gold coins in it were tossed through an open window and landed in shoes before the fireplace, saving them from a world of slavery. It was said that Nicholas was responsible for this act of kindness.
He is also seen in other legends where he protects children, hence giving him the title, protector of children.
In 1087 Nicholas of Myra’s relics were secretly transported to Bari, which was then South-eastern Italy, and he got nicknamed Nicholas of Bari. In 1442 the city was concurred by Alfonso V of Aragon and became part of the Spanish kingdom of Naples and stayed Spanish ground till the 18th century. Nicholas of Bari is well-known in Spain as the Patron of Sailors and has a black Moorish helper.
There’s a lot more legends and tales here but I’m going through this quickly to get to the whole Zwarte Piet discussion.
When Christianity took over and got bigger than the Germanic religions/gods the celebration/worshipping got merged with Christian traditions/celebrations, thus, merging Odin with Nicholas and so Sinterklaas was born.
Sinterklaas as we know it now has a long white beard, rides on a white horse on rooftops, carries a Bishop’s staff (which ending could be seen as snake-like), has a metre on his head, wears a cape, children make offerings to him in the shape of hay and/or carrots for the horse, milk/cookies for Sinterklaas, he watches over children, keeps them saves and keeps account of them being naughty or nice by making use of his black helpers; The Black Petes/Zwarte Pieten. On the 5th of December we celebrate his birthday (wrongly of course since it is the evening before Nicholas’ Death and Nameday).
Now who are these Zwarte Pieten I keep talking about and why is there a discussion about them in my country?
As we celebrate Sinterklaas nowadays he arrives on a steamboat from Spain somewhere in November with his black helpers, the Black Petes, and he stays in our country till the evening of the 5th of December after which he goes back to Spain. When the children are young they sometimes get to put their shoe near the fireplace, sing a song, put some water/hay/carrots in them for the horse and go to bed. The next morning the offers are gone and a small present (usually sugar candy or golden chocolate coins) miraculously appeared in the shoe.
The big day, however, is the 5th of December when (if your parents have enough money to pay for it) Sinterklaas and two or three Black Petes will come to your house with a bag full of presents (only if you were good of course). For the older children and even adults the 5th of December is usually an evening where you get together with family or friends, read funny poems about each other, exchanging gifts and opening ‘surprises’ (Something that has to do with the person you are making it for filled with gifts for that person. for example I once made a replica of a friend’s Bass Guitar out of paper-mâché and filled it with presents).
This all sounds lovely right? So why the discussions every year?
It’s the image of the Black Pete that some people find profoundly insulting and they call it racism. He is painted black, wears red lipstick, golden earrings, colourful clothing, feathers on his head and usually behaves in a clumsy jolly manner. He reminds some people of a slave or in the broader sense of slavery. And yes, us Dutch have a very shameful past when it comes to slavery! It is still a highly sensitive topic.
But lets try and look at this Pete character from an objective point of view. Who is he?
He could very well be a combination of Odin’s two black ravens and Nicholas of Bira’s black Moorish helper. Black Pete keeps a close eye on the children to see if they misbehave and report back to Sinterklaas, he is also Sinterklaas’ right hand and helper.
For a long time during the celebration of Sinterklaas he did not have a helper, not until Jan Schenkman wrote a children’s book called “Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht” (Saint Nicholas and his helper) in 1850. In this book Schenkman introduced the helper, the steamboat and his arrival from Spain. This helper had no name but he was wearing a servant’s outfit. In the years that followed he was named Piet (Pete) and got the appearance of a Moorish man as he is still seen today.
In 1934 during the first official arrival of Sinterklaas he was accompanied by 6 Black Petes and ever since their numbers have only grown.
But was he a slave? Or is he a form of racism?
At this point I honestly cannot make up my mind. I personally understand the abjection that his image brings to some, how some feel that his image could be seen as racism or how some feel his image portrays submissiveness. However, I also understand that some feel this is not the case and that he is a friend of children or a figure comparable to elves or dwarves, or that some say that he is black from the soot in the chimneys he goes through to bring the gifts to the children.
I find this so difficult because I, as a child, enjoyed this big funny Black Pete so so very much. I remember I loved him much more than Sinterklaas, whenever I would see a Piet my heart would jump for joy and all I could do was look up at him with a big smile on my face in pure happiness. After I stopped believing in Sinterklaas I had the pleasure of playing Black Pete myself when I was 12 years old. It was an unforgettable experience, seeing all those happy children’s faces looking up at me and giggling when I did something naughty like ‘secretly’ eating the pepernoten.
I had to miss this celebration for 3 years when I lived abroad for my studies. Oh how I missed seeing those Petes walking around during Sinterklaas. The year I came back and I saw my first Pete again my (adult) heart skipped a beat and I couldn’t help myself, I went up to him and asked for some pepernoten after which I received a hand full and a great big hug. It felt so good to be home at that moment!
To me personally as a human being acting out of emotion Pete is not racist, to me he isn’t even human. He is something else, a mythical figure. As a child I never associated him with his colour of skin or with that of any other being. My neighbours were from Trinidad and they had a pretty dark skin, I never even once looked at them and thought they resembled Black Pete or vice versa. I never associated Pete with any human being based on skin colour.
But then, when I look at him now and try to set aside my childhood memories and emotions I do see what those that oppose him mean. I still think there’s more to it than that though. I’ve seen comments online the past days that make me sick and make me feel very ashamed of my fellow countrymen. Comments such as; “if you don’t like it go back to your own country, we don’t want you here” or “Don’t you dare go against our culture” or “slavery ended 150 years ago, move the fuck on” or comments I don’t even want to repeat here. Very insulting and racist ones, coming from both sides.
This is not what Pete is about, It’s not as black and white (excuse the pun) as these people make it seem, both the people who oppose him as well as the people who defend him. I am ashamed of both sides since none of them seem to be willing to listen to one another and make compromises.
I think the NPS had a very good plan in 2006, they introduced the Rainbow Petes. Petes in all different kinds of colours accompanied Sinterklaas in that year. Unfortunately they received loads of threats and changed Rainbow Pete back to Black Pete the following year. I believe it is a shame, if they could have continued this in the years that followed we all would have accepted it by now (minus the few sourpusses who do not know how to compromise).
Looking back at my childhood, I don’t think I would have cared whether Pete was black or orange or yellow or purple or blue or green or red or pink, I would have cared whether he was there or not!
Thanks for baring with me here.
Let me know your thoughts! But be respectful though, I will delete any rude comments!
Ps, sorry for not posting any pictures, I do not own any Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet pictures and I do not feel comfortable using other people’s pictures on here, copyright breaches and such. But just google Sinterklaas and Zwarte piet and you’ll find plenty of pictures