Zwarte Piet (pronounced [ˈzʋɑrtə ˈpit]; English: Black Pete or Black Peter, Luxembourgish: Schwaarze Péiter, Indonesian: Pit Hitam) is the companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas, Luxembourgish: Kleeschen, Indonesian: Sinterklas) in the folklore of the Low Countries. The character first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman. Traditionally, Zwarte Piet is black because he is a Moor from Spain. Those portraying Zwarte Piet usually put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs and bright red lipstick. In recent years, the character has become the subject of controversy.
The Zwarte Piet character is part of the annual feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaasavond, that is, St. Nicholas' Eve) in the Netherlands, Aruba, and Curaçao, and on 6 December in Belgium, when presents and accompanying sweets are distributed to children. The characters of Zwarte Pieten appear only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas's feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by boat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain). The tasks of the Zwarte Pieten are mostly to amuse children, and to scatter kruidnoten, pepernoten, and Strooigoed (special Sinterklaas sweets) for those who come to meet the saint as he visits schools, stores, and other places.
According to Hélène Adeline Guerber and others, the origin of Sinterklaas and his helpers has been linked by some to the Wild Hunt of Odin. Riding the white horse Sleipnir, he flew through the air as the leader of the Wild Hunt. He was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimney, which was just a hole in the roof at that time, to tell Odin about the good and bad behavior of the mortals below.
The Saint Nicholas tradition contains a number of elements that are not ecclesiastical in origin. In medieval iconography, Saint Nicholas is sometimes presented as taming a chained devil, who may or may not be black. However, no hint of a companion, devil, servant, or any other human or human-like fixed companion to the Saint is found in visual and textual sources from the Netherlands from the 16th until the 19th century. According to a long-standing theory first proposed by Karl Meisen, Zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe originally represented such an enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor. This chained and fire-scorched devil may have re-emerged as a black human in the early 19th-century Netherlands, in the likeness of a Moor and as a servant of Saint Nicholas.[not in citation given] A devil as a helper of the saint can still be found in the Austrian, German, Swiss, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Polish Saint Nicholas tradition, in the character of Krampus, Père Fouettard, Schmutzli, Perchta, Knecht Ruprecht, Rubbels, Hanstrapp, Little Babushka, Pelzebock, Klaubauf and Belsnickel. These companions of Saint Nicholas are a group of closely related figures who accompany Saint Nicholas throughout the territories formerly in the Holy Roman Empire. The characters act as a foil to the benevolent new year gift-bringer, threatening to thrash or abduct disobedient children. Jacob Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie) associated this character with the pre-Christian house spirit (kobold, elf) which could be benevolent or malicious, but whose mischievous side was emphasized after Christianization. The association of the new year gift-bringer has parallels in English and Scandinavian folklore, and is ultimately and remotely connected to the modern Christmas elf in American folklore.
The introduction of Zwarte Piet did coincide, by and large, with a change in the attitude of the already existing Sinterklaas character, who had been quite severe towards bad children himself, and had in fact often been presented as a bogeyman when he was still a solitary character; moreover, some of the same terrifying characteristics that were later associated with his servant Zwarte Piet were often attributed to Saint Nicholas himself. The depiction of a holy man in this light was troubling to both teachers and priests. Some time after the introduction of Zwarte Piet as Sinterklaas' servant, both characters adopted a softer character.
The lyrics of older traditional Sinterklaas songs, still sung today, warn that while Sinterklaas and his assistant will leave well-behaved children presents, they will punish those who have been very naughty. For example, they will take bad children and carry these children off in a burlap sack to their homeland of Spain, where, according to legend, Sinterklaas and his helper dwell out of season. These songs and stories also warn that a child who has been only slightly naughty will not get a present, but a "roe", which is a bundle of birch twigs, implying that they could have gotten a birching instead, or they will simply receive a lump of coal instead of gifts.
Development and depiction in the 19th and 20th centuries
In 1850, Amsterdam-based primary school teacher Jan Schenkman published the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht ("Saint Nicholas and his Servant"), the first time that a servant character is introduced in a printed version of the Saint Nicholas narrative. The servant is depicted as a page, who appears as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors. The book also established another mythos that would become standard: the intocht or "entry" ceremony of Saint Nicholas and his servant (then still nameless) involving a steamboat. Schenkman has the two characters arrive from Spain, with no reference made to Nicholas' historical see of Myra (Lycia, modern-day Turkey). In the 1850 version of Schenkman's book, the servant is depicted in simple white clothing with red piping. Starting with the second edition in 1858, the page is shown in a much more colorful page costume reminiscent of the Spanish fashion of earlier days, looking much the same as he does at present.
The book stayed in print until 1950 and has had considerable influence on the current celebration. Although in Schenkman's book the servant was nameless, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm already made reference to a dialogue partner of Saint Nicholas with the name "Pieter-me-knecht" in a handwritten note to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Moreover, writing in 1884, Alberdingk Thijm remembered that in 1828, as a child, he had attended a Saint Nicholas celebration in the house of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant and consul living in Amsterdam. On this occasion Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by "Pieter me Knecht ..., a frizzy haired Negro", who, rather than a rod, wore a large basket filled with presents.
In 1833, an Amsterdam-based magazine made humorous reference to "Pietermanknecht" in describing the fate that those who had sneaked out of their houses to attend that year's St. Nicholas celebrations were supposed to have met upon their return home. In 1859, Dutch newspaper De Tijd noticed that Saint Nicholas nowadays was often accompanied by "a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself". In the 1891 book Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the servant is named Pieter. Until 1920 there were several books giving him other names, and in contemporaneous appearances the name and looks still varied considerably.
According to a story from the Legenda Aurea, retold by Eelco Verwijs in his monograph Sinterklaas (1863), one of the miraculous deeds performed by Saint Nicholas after his death consisted of freeing a boy from slavery at the court of the "Emperor of Babylon" and delivering him back to his parents. No mention is made of the boy's skin colour. However, in the course of the 20th century, narratives started to surface in which Zwarte Piet was considered a former slave who had been freed by the saint and subsequently had become his lifelong companion.
According to another popular explanation that came to prominence in the later decades of the 20th century, Zwarte Piet is a Spaniard, or an Italian chimney sweep, whose blackness is due to a permanent layer of soot on his body, acquired during his many trips through the chimneys.
Late 20th and 21st century
Due to the character's depiction, which typically involves actors and volunteers covering their skin in black makeup, wearing black wigs and large earrings, the traditions surrounding Zwarte Piet became increasingly controversial beginning in the late 20th century. Though a large majority of the overall populace in both the Netherlands and Belgium is in favor of retaining the traditional Zwarte Piet character, studies have shown that the perception of Zwarte Piet can differ greatly among different ethnic backgrounds, age groups and regions. Outside of the Netherlands, the character has received criticism from a wide variety of international publications and news organizations. Among others, American essayist David Sedaris has written about the tradition, and British comedian Russell Brand has spoken negatively of it, the latter dubbing Zwarte Piet "a colonial hangover."
Nevertheless, according to a 2013 survey, upwards of 90% of the Dutch public do not perceive Zwarte Piet to be a racist character or associate him with slavery and are opposed to altering the character's appearance. This correlates to a 2015 study among Dutch children aged 3–7 which showed that they perceive Zwarte Piet to be a fantastical clownish figure rather than a black person. However, the number of Dutch people who are willing to change certain details of the character (for example his lips and hair) is reported to be growing. By 2018, 88% of the Dutch public did not perceive Zwarte Piet as racist, and 54% were happy with the character's modernized appearance (a mix of roetveegpieten and blackface).
Opposition to the figure is mostly found in the most urbanized provinces of North- and South Holland, where between nine and seven percent of the populace wants to change the appearance of Zwarte Piet. In Amsterdam, most opposition towards the character is found among the Ghanaian, Antillean and Dutch-Surinamese communities, with 50% of the Surinamese considering the figure to be discriminatory to others, whereas 27% consider the figure to be discriminatory towards themselves. The predominance of the Dutch black community among those who oppose the Zwarte Piet character is also visible among the main anti-Zwarte Piet movements, Zwarte Piet Niet and Zwarte Piet is Racisme which have established themselves since the 2010s. Generally, adherents of these groups consider Zwarte Piet to be part of the Dutch colonial heritage, in which black people were subservient to whites or are opposed to what they consider stereotypical black ("Black Sambo") features of the figure, such as bright red lips, curly hair and large golden earrings.
The public debate surrounding the figure can be described as polarized, with some protesters considering the figure to be an insult to their ancestry and supporters considering the character to be an inseparable part of their cultural heritage. Recent years have seen a number of incidents in which anti-Zwarte Piet demonstrators have been arrested by the police for disturbing the peace, as well as threats being made towards prominent figures in the anti-Zwarte Piet movement by supporters of the character.
Meanwhile, schools and businesses across the Netherlands have begun changing Zwarte Piet's clothing and makeup or phasing the character out entirely. In 2015, the Bijenkorf department store chain opted to replace holiday displays featuring Zwarte Piet with a golden-skinned version instead. Elsewhere, one in three Dutch primary schools announced plans to alter the character's appearance in their celebrations. Nickelodeon in the Netherlands also decided to use a racially mixed group of actors to portray Piet in their holiday broadcasts instead of people in blackface. RTL Nederland made a similar decision in the autumn of 2016 and replaced the character with actors with soot on their faces.
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- In Nikolauskult und Nikolausbrauch im Abendlande: Eine kultgeographisch-volkskundliche Untersuchung (Düsseldorf, 1931).
- "Jan Schenkman" (in Dutch). dbnl.nl. Retrieved 28 November 2010.
- For example: J. ter Gouw, in De volksvermaken (Haarlem, 1871), p. 256, describes an ancient tradition of "Zwarte Klazen" in Amsterdam; A.B. van Meerten, in Reisje door het Koningrijk der Nederlanden en het Groot-Hertogdom Luxemburg, voor kinderen (Amsterdam, 1827), describes a (fictional?) St. Nicholas celebration in which the Saint appears "with a black face ... with a whip and a rod in his hands"; and in De Nederlandsche Kindervriend, in gedichtjes voor de welopgevoede jeugd (Amsterdam, 1829), pp. 72-74, "Sinterklaas" is referred to as "a black man" who was said to descend down the chimney "with a great noise of chains" which he used for fettering naughty children. Respondents to a 1943 survey of the Meertens Instituut wrote that they had known Saint Nicholas "as a bishop or as a black man with a chain on his foot" and "in the shape of a black man. The bishop was unknown in my youth" (J. Helsloot, "Sich verkleiden in der niederländischen Festkultur. Der Fall des 'Zwarte Piet'", Rheinisches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde 26 (2005/2006), pp. 137-153; 141).
- Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in Dutch). Retrieved 29 November 2007.
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- "Zij echter, die ter sluik op het St. Nicolaas feest hadden rondgewandeld, vonden, te huis komende, de Pietermanknecht te hunnent; de zoons in hunne vaders, de mannen in hunnen vrouwen en de dienstmeisjes in hunne gebiedsters." ("St. Nikolaas", De Arke Noach's, 7, 10 (December 1833), pp. 294-299; p. 296)
- Helsloot, J. (November 2011). "De oudst bekende naam van Zwarte Piet: Pieter-mê-knecht (1850)". Digitale nieuwsbrief Meertens Instituut.
- Eelco Verwijs, Sinterklaas (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1863), p. 13. The slave is a young Alexandrian named Adeodatus.
- See, for instance, the story of the Ethiopian slave "Piter" in Anton van Duinkerken, "De Geschiedenis van Sinterklaas", De Tijd, 21 November 1947, p. 3; "Sint Nicolaas bevrijdde een slaaf. Uit dankbaarheid ging deze vrijwillig de Sint dienen; hij heet Zwarte Piet", De Nieuwsgier, 3 December 1954, p. 3; and also, from a slightly different angle, Puck Volmer, "Hoe Zwarte Piet het knechtje van Sinterklaas werd", De Indische Courant, 29 November 1941, p. 19.
- Blakely, Allison (2001). Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society. Indiana University Press. pp. 48–49. ISBN 9780253214331.
- "Onderzoek RTL Nieuws: Zwarte Piet moet zwart blijven". RTL Nieuws. Retrieved 6 December 2015.
- In a poll of RTL Nieuws, 81% only supported a solely black Zwarte Piet with an additional 10% supporting a majority of Zwarte Piets with a few soot-covered ones.
- A 2015 inquiry by the national newspaper Algemeen Dagblad showed that in the overwhelming majority of Dutch municipalities, no changes would be made to the traditional appearance of the Zwarte Piet character. Only 6% of the municipalities approached mentioned (further unspecified) changes to the character.
- A 2013 inquiry by Dutch public news program EenVandaag showed that in every Dutch province, the overwhelming majority did not support changes in the Zwarte Piet characters appearance. The largest percentage in support of changing the characters appearance (9%) was found in North-Holland.
- "In a 2012 study by the municipality of Amsterdam, shows that majority of respondents do not consider the Zwarte Piet character to be racist or that the character is racists towards others, but this differs greatly when comparing ethnic groups" (PDF). Ois.amsterdam.nl. Retrieved 2019-01-14.
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- 2015 enquiry shows children perceive Zwarte Piet as a clown rather than black. NRC Handelsblad 3 December 2015.
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