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Zwarte Piet

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A white Dutch woman in blackface costume as Zwarte Piet.
A white Dutch woman in blackface costume as Zwarte Piet.

In the Netherlands and Flanders, Zwarte Piet (meaning Black Pete(r)) is a companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch "Sinterklaas") whose yearly feast in the Netherlands is 5 December and 6 December in Flanders, when they distribute presents to all (good) children.

Zwarte Piet has counterparts in the folklore of other western cultures (including the Elves aiding Santa Claus, a modern American composite of the Saint and Father Christmas) and those are known by many names, among them: Rumpelklas, Buzebergt and Hans Muff. The character of Zwarte Piet only makes an appearance in the weeks before Saint Nicholas' feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country ("in the Netherlands by steam boat, from Spain"), and is mainly targeted at children, who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools etc. He is sometimes associated with Knecht Ruprecht, but in the Low Countries the tradition has not merged with Christmas.


  • 1845: Jan Schenkman writes Saint Nicholas and his Servant; Piet is indicated in this book as a servant and is depicted as an Indian. 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. He is not wearing the flashing page suit yet, but is instead wearing a simple suit in colors fitting the bishop costume, showing they are a team. 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.
  • 1891: A book appears which names the servant Pieter, although there were several books giving him other names, and in live appearances the name and looks still varied considerably.
  • In the early 20th century first the Civilized Standard Celebration for children with Zwarte Piet as the standard personal servant of the saint spread throughout the country. In the 1930s urban adults become more involved too and the arrival of Saint Nicholas and Zwarte Piet are staged, which more or less explains the shift from the 6th to the 5th of December, as the adults would celebrate on the eve of the saint's day.
  • 1945: The Second World War disrupted the tradition. After the war ended, it was difficult to stage the arrival of Saint Nicholas and Piet. However, with the much-needed assistance of the Canadian Army, four Jeeps were used. Although the idea of having more than one Saint Nicholas was attractive to the helpful Canadian soldiers, that would be an impossible break with the tradition, so instead of multiplying Saint Nicholas, his servants were multiplied. The paradigm shift opened possibilities to create (for TV and such) lots of different characters being "Zwarte Piet" at the same time.


Before the beginning of the 19th century, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) operated by himself or in the companionship of the devil. (Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas eve the devil was shackled and made his slave.) A devil as a helper of the Saint can also still be found in Austrian Saint Nicholas tradition.

Saint Nicholas is said to come from Spain and with the evolution of the story his helper became a Moor. Until the second half of the 20th century, Saint Nicholas' helper was not too bright, in line with the old colonial traditions. Once immigration started from the former colonised countries Zwarte Piet became a more respected assistant of Saint Nicholas.

According to the more modern Saint Nicholas legend, Zwarte Piet is a servant who accompanies Saint Nicholas on his holiday travels. In some versions, it is alleged that Saint Nicholas once liberated a young slave named Peter, who decided to serve Nicholas (as a free servant) rather than enjoy liberty alone. Zwarte Piet is today commonly depicted as a black man in the colorful pantaloons, feathered cap and ruffles of a Renaissance European page, a tradition based on a single illustration in a book published in 1850.

Often portrayed as a mischievous or even mean character, parents used to tell their children that if they have been good, Zwarte Piet will bring them gifts and sweets; but if they have been bad, Piet will scoop them up, stuff them in his huge dufflebag and spirit them away to Spain (a logical place of origin for the black assistant from the time of submission of 'heathen' Moors during the Reconquista). Though this is considered increasingly outdated nowadays, he can still carry some type of whip or scourge, especially a birch, which could be used for birching or in modern words, to chastise children who have been too naughty to deserve presents. The character is believed to have been derived from pagan traditions of evil spirits.

The traditions of the Saint Nicholas feast are in part at least of medieval origin, if not much older. St. Nicholas himself, as described in the Dutch tradition shows some similarities to Wuotan/Odin, which suggests that the duo have a pre-Christian origin. Possible precursors to Zwarte Piet can be found in Odin's ravens Hugin and Munin.

Current affairs

The character of Zwarte Piet is increasingly controversial in its modern interpretation, which is often similar to blackface and can bring similar social consequences [1] [2].

During recent years the role of Zwarte Piet has become part of a re-occurring debate in the Netherlands. The origin and appearance of Zwarte Piet is seen as a form of racism that promotes a negative stereotype of dark-skinned people as evil, stupid, emasculated or foolish. These same behaviour and physical characteristics are shared by the typical character in the condemned early 20th Century American tradition blackface, even though many European countries do not have a high level of exposure to the tradition. Zwarte Piet's role as the subservant character in the story of Saint Nicholas is particularily sensitive considering the history of the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century.

Due to its nature as a legend and the increased number of Pieten, Zwarte Piet is represented in many different ways with many different specialities. Some examples include a wayguide Piet, a cooking Piet, a poem Piet and an acrobatic Piet.

Since the last decade of the 20st century there have been several attempts to introduce a new kind of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch population. These Zwarte Pieten have replaced the traditional black make-up for all sorts of colours and have been introduced several times in an effort to make Zwarte Piet acceptable by all inhabitants and to create a character that is politically correct. These multi-colored Pieten are unpopular amongst the Dutch population and are not catching on.[3]


In the 2004 film Collateral, crime lord "Felix" tells "Max" an old Mexican tale of Black Peter.

See also

  • Companions of Saint Nicholas
  • Blackface

External links

  • Contemporary Zwarte Pieten Band, called "De Pietels". (Dutch)
  • Dutch-language web site devoted to all things Zwarte Piet. (Dutch)
  • Testimony of a black american ex-patriate living in Holland who has been victimized by the stereotypes caused by Zwarte Piet
  • Criticism of Zwarte Piet by a Canadian ex-patriate
  • Charles Trueheart of Chicago Sun-Times presents a journalistic view on Zwarte Piet
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