Zwarte Piet (pronounced [ˈzʋɑrtə ˈpit]; English: Black Peter or Black Pete, Luxembourgish: Schwaarze Péiter) is the companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas, Luxembourgish: Kleeschen) in the folklore of the Low Countries. The character first appeared in his current form in an 1850 book by Jan Schenkman and is commonly depicted as a blackamoor. Traditionally Zwarte Piet is said to be black because he is a Moor from Spain. Those portraying Zwarte Piet typically put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. In recent years, the character has become the subject of controversy, especially in the Netherlands.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (July 2015)|
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, Curaçao and Aruba and on 6 December in Belgium and Luxembourg, when sweets and presents 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 pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed (special sinterklaas candies) for those who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools, and other places.
According to Hélène Adeline Guerber and others,[unreliable source?] [unreliable source?] the origin of Sinterklaas and his helpers has been linked by some to the Wild Hunt of Wodan. 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. Those helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimney – which was just a hole in the roof at that time – to tell Wodan about the good and bad behaviour of the mortals. Due to its speculative character, however, this older "Germanic" theory has little support among present-day scholars, although it continues to be popular in non-scholarly sources. At the same time, it seems clear that the Saint Nicholas tradition contains a number of elements that are not ecclesiastical in origin. According to E. Boer-Dirks, "Nieuw licht op Zwarte Piet. Een kunsthistorisch antwoord op de vraag naar de herkomst", Volkskundig Bulletin, 19 (1993), pp. 1–35, this tradition is derived from German folkloristic research of the first decades of the 19th century (p. 2). This happened relatively early; already in 1863, the Dutch lexicographer Eelco Verwijs is found comparing the feast of St. Nicholas with Germanic pagan traditions and noting that the appearance of Wodan and Eckart in December reminds him of that of St. Nicholas and "his servant Ruprecht" (De christelijke feesten: Eene bijdrage tot de kennis der germaansche mythologie. I. Sinterklaas (The Hague, 1863), p. 40). An older reference to a possible pagan origin of a "St. Nicholas and his black servant with chains", apparently in a Dutch setting, is found in L. Ph. C. van den Bergh, Nederlandsche volksoverleveringen en godenleer (Utrecht, 1836), p. 74 ("...de verschijning van den zwarten knecht van St. Nikolaas met kettingen, die de kinders verschrikt, ... acht ik van heidenschen oorsprong").
In medieval iconography, Saint Nicholas is sometimes presented as taming a chained devil, who may or may not be black. Although no hint of a 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, Zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe, according to a long-standing theory, originally must have represented such an enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor. This chained and fire-scorched devil somehow re-emerged in the 19th-century Netherlands in the likeness of a Moor, as a servant of Saint Nicholas. A devil as a helper of the saint can still be found in the Austrian Saint Nicholas tradition, in the character of Krampus.
The introduction of Zwarte Piet did coincide, by and large, with a change in the attitude of the Sinterklaas character. The latter 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. Sometime 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.
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 (boy) male servant, 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 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, both fictional and non-fictional 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. and J. Helsloot, "De strijd om Zwarte Piet", in: I. Hoving, H. Dibbits & M. Schrover (eds.), Cultuur en migratie in Nederland. Veranderingen van het alledaagse, 1950-2000 (Den Haag, 2005), pp. 249–270; 265.
The character became controversial during the latter part of the century. In addition to the editorials and newspaper articles, Zwarte Piet was discussed on an 1987 episode of the Dutch version of Sesame Street. In a segment, Pino learns about how the character can be interpreted as racist while talking with Dutch/Surinamese actress and singer Gerda Havertong. Beginning in the 1990s, there were several attempts to introduce a revised version of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch public, among them replacing traditional black makeup with various other shades or colours.
The Netherlands and overseas
In the early 21st century, Zwarte Piet became increasingly controversial both in the Netherlands and overseas. Among others, American essayist David Sedaris has written about the tradition. and British comedian Russell Brand has spoken negatively of it, going so far as to dub Zwarte Piet "a colonial hangover." Dutch comedian Erik van Muiswinkel, who has portrayed the "Head Piet" in national celebrations since 1998, deemed Zwarte Piet "a cheerful relic from racist times" in a 2013 editorial and urged revisions to the traditions surrounding him. Nevertheless, he still performs as "Head Piet" in blackface. The character continues to be popular in the Netherlands.
Within the Netherlands and abroad there is an ongoing debate over how best to update the tradition and remove Zwarte Piet's stereotypical characteristics. In 2006, the NPS replaced the black Pieten with rainbow-colored Pieten, which had accidentally shifted colour according to the storyline of the televised Sinterklaas arrival serial of that year, resulting in much criticism from Dutch viewers. The largest Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada, slated for 3 December 2011, in New Westminster, British Columbia, was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1985 following a debate over the inclusion of the character.
In 2011, legislators in the former Dutch colony of Suriname stated that government-sanctioned celebrations involving Zwarte Piet were considered an insult to the "black part of Suriname's community." Efforts later began in Suriname to prevent future governmental promotions of the character. That same holiday season, four people wearing T-shirts with the words "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" were arrested during the second weekend of November 2011 at a Sinterklaas festival in Dordrecht after failing several instructions by the police to move elsewhere. Subsequent to the arrest, residents of Amsterdam complained to their mayor and requested that Zwarte Piet be removed from the city's Sinterklaas parade.
In 2013, in response to claims that the Zwarte Piet tradition perpetuates racist stereotypes, a number of independent and special rapporteurs working under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Council wrote a letter to the Government of the Netherlands requesting an investigation into these allegations. Belgian Unesco representative Marc Jacobs later informed Dutch media that their Sinterklaas traditions were not actually being investigated for 'racism', stating that the person who had signed the letter, Jamaican Verene Shepherd, had "abused the name of the UN" and had no authorisation to do so.
Also in 2013, the mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, became one of the first public officials to push for alterations to the character. He suggested that the frizzy hair and red lips could be easily changed and later stated his preference for a gradual change of Zwarte Piet's looks. He also voiced his expectation that during Sinterklaas's entry into the city in 2014, the several hundreds of Zwarte Pieten would not be wearing earrings and would not have red-painted lips. Nevertheless, on the weekend of Amsterdam's Sinterklaas celebration in November 2013, several hundred people protested against the character at demonstrations throughout the city. In the weeks that followed, several smaller public and private celebrations opted to feature alternative "colored", "rainbow" or "soot swiped" Pieten. However, a news segment on the Dutch public broadcaster Nederlandse Omroep Stichting concluded the trend had not gained mainstream adoption.
According to a 2013 survey, 92% of the Dutch public don't perceive Zwarte Piet as racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% are opposed to altering the character's appearance. Nevertheless, beginning in 2013, several Dutch retail chains including Hema and V&D began changing their seasonal Sinterklaas products and displays in order to include a revised version of Zwarte Piet without the makeup or other racially insensitive characteristics.
In 2014, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a longtime defender of the controversial tradition, stated after fielding a question from journalist Kevin P. Roberson that "It is an old Dutch children's tradition. My friends in the Antilles are very happy when it is Sinterklaas because they don't have to paint their faces. When I play Zwarte Piet, I am, for days, trying to get the stuff off my face." His statements were criticized by several members of the press, people in the Netherlands Antilles as well as anti-Zwarte Piet activists.
In early 2014, a coalition formed by the Dutch Folk Culture Centre began informal talks to discuss the future of Zwarte Piet and whether or not the character should be modified or phased out entirely. A court hearing in Amsterdam concerning the character was scheduled for that May. The court's verdict, rendered that July, contended that Zwarte Piet is, indeed, offensive due to the character's continued role in perpetuating negative stereotypes of black people. Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan contested the ruling and appealed to the Council of State. Although he recognized that the character of Zwarte Piet can be interpreted as racist, he believed the legal ramifications of the ruling to be too severe. The following November, the Council of State ruled that neither the mayor or the council are qualified to answer the question of whether the character qualifies as racist, but that this question might still be brought before the civil courts.
Celebrations during the 2014 holiday season featured the inclusion of revised versions of Zwarte Piet with less controversial characteristics, while Sint Journaal, a seasonal television program about Sinterklaas' adventures in the Netherlands, also included similar changes. A national celebration in Gouda on 15 November announcing the arrival of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, was interrupted when a fight broke out between pro-Piet attendees and anti-Piet demonstrators. 90 people were arrested.
In Belgium, there is also controversy about the perceived racist nature of Zwarte Piet. In October 2014, The Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism stated that the image of Zwarte Piet is not in violation with the country's anti-discrimination and/or anti-racism laws. The Centre did, however, encourage an open debate and requested that celebrants refrain from representing "the figure of Zwarte Piet as a stupid, inferior or dangerous black man."
On 15 November 2014, a demonstration organised by Dyab Abou Jahjah and his civil rights movement, Movement X, sent a complaint to Bart De Wever, mayor of Antwerp. Bart De Wever accepted the complaint, though admitted he'd prefer to not import the Dutch problems in Belgium. From a more extremist side, the demonstration received harsh criticism. Filip Dewinter and Tom Van Grieken, prominent members of the far right party Vlaams Belang criticised Abu Jahjah on Twitter. The group's peaceful demonstration also led to people calling for Abou Jahjah's assassination after which he filed a complaint with the police.
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- 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).
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- However, an article in an Amsterdam-based magazine of 1833 makes humorous reference to a "Pietermanknecht", who is said to punish those who sneaked out of their houses to attend that year's St. Nicholas celebrations: "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)
- Eelco Verwijs, Sinterklaas (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1863), p. 13. The slave is a young Alexandrian named Adeodatus.
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