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St Nick and his problematic helper

Mark Mardell | 00:01 UK time, Thursday, 6 December 2007

Christmas comes early in Belgium and the Netherlands.
St Nicholas
Children get their presents today, 6th December. And, of course, they get them from St Nick or Sinter Klaas, as they call him.

Many towns hold festivals and parades when he comes visiting. But British and Americans, happily pushing their children forward to get a little present and an early glimpse of Father Christmas, tend to do a shocked double take when they spot his helper.

While recognisably the model for Father Christmas, Santa here is still quite clearly a Saint and a Churchman. He wears a long red robe and wears a golden mitre and carries a bishop's crook. He is kindly, but sober and very much the visiting dignitary.

Offensive side-kick?

Not so his side kick, Zwarte Piet. Black Pete is a rascal, a prankster, the source of sweets thrown in the air, with the dark possibility that he could put you in his sack and take you away if you've been really naughty. But that's not the reason for the double take.

Zwarte Piet is nearly always a blacked-up white man or woman, wearing a tight curly wig with big rouged lips, dressed in bright pantaloons, a big ruff and gold earring. A very old-fashioned, and to many offensive, caricature of a black man.

I wrote about this when I had only been living here a couple of months, but have been digging since then.

We all know the original Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, was a bishop from Myra in what is now Turkey. He probably attended the critical Council of Nicaea and was martyred by a Roman Emperor. His remains are buried in Bari in Italy.

But that's not where he lives now. You probably think he comes from Lapland or the North Pole and gets around in a sleigh pulled by Rudolph and his pals.

Spanish connection

But every child in the Low Countries knows that he resides in Spain and travels north in a steam ship. In the old days, if you were naughty, Black Pete might give you a strapping or put coal in your shoes. But, if you were really bad, he might put you in his sack and take you back to far off Iberia.

The Spanish connection is easy. The lowlands were ruled from Spain under the Hapsburgs, and Spanish soldiers would have been both a familiar and exotic sight. Spain equals far away and foreign. And Saint Nick is not so daft if, like many Brits, he prefers the Costas to the tundra.
Black Peter
Black Peter's origins are more problematic. There are suggestions that he started life as a Moorish servant from Spain, a Turkish orphan rescued by St Nick, or an Ethiopian slave freed by him.

Some, squirming with embarrassment, explain that Black Pete gets black from soot coming down the chimney. If so it doesn't explain why he looks like a Victorian colonialist's supposedly humorous caricature of a negro. But perhaps Black Pete's origins lie further back and raise even more concerns about today's portrayal.

Among his miracles and good deeds, St Nicholas also had time to best the devil and medieval pictures show him with Satan in chains. And the devil is always painted black.

Odin's horse

But it's possible Pete is pre-Christian. One of his jobs is to look after Sleipnir, Santa's horse.

He's an elegant but normal nag but curiously has the same name as Odin's eight-legged steed. And Odin is often portrayed taking dead souls back to the underworld. And guess what colour they are? Black.

Earlier, I deliberately wrote of Zwart Pete's "darker" side. It is this unthinking, Western link between evil, death, colour and coarse caricature that so worries some.

Others point out that it is Pete who's really loved by the kids, not the stuffy bishop, always adding that it's a bit of harmless fun.

Here, it's a debate that is as seasonal as Christmas itself.

(A version of this article first appeared in the December edition of BBC History Magazine).

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 08:38 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Andrew Davis wrote:

In a perfect world everything would be perfectly PC. The problem is that the world is far from perfect. Does Mr M have a good reason for raising this issue in 2007 or is he short of a good story?

  • 2.
  • At 09:02 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • g.dangar wrote:

I must withdraw my first comment you are quite correct to-day is the feast of Sint Nicolaas.My confusion arose because on the evening of December 5th. presents are exchanged,I have discovered that this should take place on the morning of the 6th but the pace of modern life has made this to complicated.

  • 3.
  • At 09:21 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Chris Wood wrote:

Spent the last weekend in Brussels and thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas parade in the town square, complete with Santa Claus and several 'blacked-up' Black Peters, who were distributing sweets to all of the kids. All totally harmless fun and I didn't see the beginnings of any race riots or hear the sounds of society collapsing. The fact that this raises eyebrows on our side of the Channel is proof-positive the British have been indoctrinated to believe that any representation of a Negro (or any other member of an 'ethnic minority') immediately equals racism. This fully explains the failure of the great British "multi-culturism" experiment. Luckily, the rest of Europe isn't quite so obsessed by this insane political correctness and haven't (yet!) adopted the English (intentional use) practice of subjugating and repressing their own cultural traditions, in a desperate and pathetically sad, attempt not to offend anyone who's not ethnically 'British'. I know the BBC won't dare to post this comment - we're allowed to have freedom of speech, just so long as we don't dare say anything that anyone else might possibly find offensive!!

  • 4.
  • At 09:38 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Jill Calderbank wrote:

We lived in The Netherlands for 6 years with our family and as usual we celebrated Sinterklass yesterday with the exchange of 'suprises'!

  • 5.
  • At 09:38 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Sophie Raynor wrote:

It is interesting to read alternative hypotheses as to the origin of Zwarte Piet. I have always assumed that he began as a slave (particular since Sinterklaas now seems to have many Pietjes). Rather than gasp and gawp and try to protect our children from such obviously politically incorrect imagery (which, in the Netherlands at least, is not a possibility and may confuse them further), I believe that it should be seen as an oppurtunity to educate our children in Europe's collonial heritage.
With Zwarte Piet's help, we can begin to teach even children of a very young age about some of the horrors of the slave trade. And who knows, perhaps it will increase their awareness of social and political issues today and just how fortunate they are.

Maybe I am hopelessly naive. I would like to think that I am much less so than those (mainly Brits and Americans) who think they can get through Sinterklaas in the low-Countries without their children noticing the thousands of brightly clothed, boot-polished Pietjes which fill our towns, schools shops and television screens at this time of year.

  • 6.
  • At 09:49 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Vanessa Geerts wrote:

Dear Mark,

I'm sorry to inform you that your story is not quite right... Sinterklaas is not father Christmas. (father Christmas is called in Belgium and Holland the kerstman - that's him in your photo - not Sinterklaas) Sinterklaas has a horse called "slecht-weer-vandaag"(bad-weather-today) and father Christmas has reindeers. Sinterklaas has a lot of helpers, Zwarte Pieten. He has a Zwarte Piet for everything: wegwijspiet (navigation-piet), pakjespiet ( presents-piet), hoofdpiet ( He's in charge of all the Piets)

Kind regards,

Vanessa Geerts,
Vlimmeren
Belgium

Hello Mark,

good article, on a feast we're glad to enjoy today. One remark though to improve it. It's Sinterklaas (in one word)

Philippe

  • 8.
  • At 10:18 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Nadine Hengen wrote:

This is very interesting. In Luxembourg, "Zwarte Piet" is called 'Housecker', I have no idea where the word comes from, and what it means. The connection to coal holds true here, but not that to caricature of black men, in fact 'Housecker' dresses in sack-cloth, and black cloth only, has coal smeared on his cheeks, wears a long black wig, and generally scares all children but the bravest boys... he leaves coal for the bad children, and a cane to their parents to beat them with.

Whether this was an early warning to the young catholics that the church is always the better option I don't know.

  • 9.
  • At 10:53 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Rich Tucholka wrote:

This is a European tradition. It is not an American tradition. We Americans have no right to impose Political Correctness on other Nations. People need to lighten up and accept cultural differences.

  • 10.
  • At 11:13 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Johanna Collinge wrote:

Only killjoys wish to abolish Zwarte Piet. They are fun, often acrobatic, walking on their hands, making somersaults and at times are a bit naughty themselves, that's what children love about them.

Originally he was believed to be Sint Nikolaas's servant from Northern Africa, looking after his horse, and he may have been a well treated slave.
The 6th of December is the birthday of the Saint. In the Netherlands the presents are usually distributed on the evening if 5th December.

  • 11.
  • At 11:35 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Kevin Jardine wrote:

The vast majority of Dutch and Belgian residents will tell you that Zwarte Piet is a folk figure not at all related to the racist portrayals of African-Americans that used to be common in the United States. It's hard to avoid noticing, however, that whatever the origins of Zwarte Piet, the dark skin, frizzy hair and red lips in the way he is currently portrayed look a lot like Golliwog dolls - especially in the Zwarte Piet dolls common in shop windows all over the Netherlands and Belgium. Golliwogs have their origins in the black minstrel figures of the 19th century United States. In North America, such figures are now almost universally viewed as insulting racist caricatures. Not so, apparently, in parts of Europe.

  • 12.
  • At 11:58 AM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Ilah wrote:

Having lived here in Holland for 9 years now and survived yet another 5th December celebrations, I have to say that I completely disagree with the Zwarte Piet character, it just seems so wrong in this day and age. My children have never known living in the UK but I have made it clear to them that to protray people in this way is wrong, plus we don't celebrate Christmas twice!

I will never forget the first time I encountered "Zwarte Piet". I think I had my mouth open in amazement and I believe I uttered something along the lines of "Is that legal?" I then had undergo the explaination and the soot reason was mentioned. I've seen characters that are portrayed as chimney sweeps, Zwarte Piet doesn't even come close unless he's been down the chimney of a power station for several days and changed his clothes to bright, shiney new ones without first taking a shower!

  • 13.
  • At 12:00 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Andy P wrote:

If you were to dig a bit further, Mark, you would find far more people who find the EU much more offensive.

  • 14.
  • At 12:07 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Justin wrote:

I'm often against what I regard as the politically over-correct arguments for getting rid of traditions.

However, I do think there is a strong case for giving "black Pete" a makeover considering he does seem to have gained traits over the years that stem from a less tolerant and more ignorant era.

  • 15.
  • At 12:40 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Sophie Raynor wrote:

It is interesting to read alternative hypotheses as to the origin of Zwarte Piet. I have always assumed that he began as a slave (particular since Sinterklaas now seems to have many Pietjes). Rather than gasp and gawp and try to protect our children from such obviously politically incorrect imagery (which, in the Netherlands at least, is not a possibility and may confuse them further), I believe that it should be seen as an oppurtunity to educate our children in Europe's collonial heritage.
With Zwarte Piet's help, we can begin to teach even children of a very young age about some of the horrors of the slave trade. And who knows, perhaps it will increase their awareness of social and political issues today and just how fortunate they are.

Maybe I am hopelessly naive. I would like to think that I am much less so than those (mainly Brits and Americans) who think they can get through Sinterklaas in the low-Countries without their children noticing the thousands of brightly clothed, boot-polished Pietjes which fill our towns, schools, shops and television screens at this time of year.

  • 16.
  • At 12:40 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Philip Larmett wrote:

Mark might also go digging a little further into the Spanish connection:

A few years back I spent new year in Seville and had the pleasure to watch the big "Los Reyes" January 6th parade, which was very reminiscent of the Dutch and Belgian traditions.
Only here it was the Three Kings: Melchior, Caspar and Balthazaar who were the heroes. They bring the presents. And so the Spanish children have to wait until January 6th for their big day. And there were Moors running around the floats of the three kings, throwing around sweets. The spitting image of Zwarte Piet.
No sign of St Nicholas here.

It seems to me that the St Nicholas processions in the Low Countries were borrowed from the Spanish traditions, which live on in "Los Reyes" which is a much bigger family day in southern Spain than Christmas or New Year. And then fused with the Northern Eurpean traditions of St Nicholas as the bishop who saved children.

Mark, let the BBC send you to Southern Spain in early January and you will see what I mean.

  • 17.
  • At 12:51 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Fred Cassidy wrote:

Kids get their presents on 5th December, not 6th.
And some say the origins of Black Pete are Italian chimney sweeps (who walk on roofs), which can be seen depicted in old pictures in musea: The companion of the bishop is a white man, soot on his face, brush in hand.

  • 18.
  • At 12:55 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Suzan wrote:

I am Dutch and have grown up believing in Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, his Morish helper. It was not Zwarte Piet who was scary, he was naughty, forgetful, funny etc., Sinterklaas was the one who would decide whether or not you would warn you that he might take you back to Madrid with him if you continued to be naughty. Sinterklaas has not left me with any traumas, instead I have great memories, especially when I was older and could help make presents, rhymes and surprises for younger siblings. Cannot we just maintain this festival without the political correctness? I don't see black people or people of any other ethnic origin as example of a Zwarte Piet. You should see him as the court joker, nobody protests against those because they are white.

  • 19.
  • At 01:03 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

Perhaps the problem could be solved by re-inventing 'Black Peter' as a trendy hip hop rap star complete with 'bling'?

  • 20.
  • At 01:10 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Jel wrote:

The French name for Zwarte Piet's even less PC: he's le Père Fouettard, the Whipping Father.

  • 21.
  • At 01:27 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Richard Gault wrote:

I think Mark will find the children in Germany getting their presents today (6 December) from St Nikolaus. Dutch children have already had theirs.

Sinterklaas arrived in Holland (where I live) a few weeks ago on a steam boat from Spain. After the necessary weeks of preparation he and his many 'Piets' delivered all their presents yesterday (5 December).

The good man was often seen during the past weeks - either in the flesh or on TV during the nightly 'Sinterklass News' programme. Along with his Piets we also saw his beautiful 'grey' horse, Americo. I've never heard of his faithful friend referred to as Sleipnir: how did Mark come up with this nordic connection?

Santa is, indeed, the American carnation of Sinterklaas. To avoid confusion here in Holland this usurper is always known as 'the Christmas Man'. Despite their common origin Sinterklaas and the Christmas Man are rivals battling, it can seem, for the soul of Holland. There is a real fear here that this distinctive Dutch festival will succumb to the power of American media. So it was with satisfaction that the press reported yesterday that after years of slow decline more people were celebrating Sinterklaas this year than in 2006.

  • 22.
  • At 01:30 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Peter Chuck wrote:

Mark's article about Saint Nicholas is interesting and accurate, but his photo is completely wrong.
In the December 6th parades, St. Nick wears a typical Bishop's robe and mitre, and holds a Crozier (or crook).
For more serious info see this site: https://www.stnicholascenter.org and there is a great photo here
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Sinterklaas_2007.jpg

  • 23.
  • At 01:31 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Mookie wrote:

Define irony: The black population of Curaçao "blacking themselves up" when taking on the role of Zwarte Piet.

Seriously. They do.

People taking offense to Zwarte Piet are just as offensive and borderline racist themselves. It's a tradition which can be harmless if people let it be - just as they do on Curaçao.

  • 24.
  • At 01:41 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • John wrote:

I think that the connection to Victorian versions of black people and the risk of this being offensive is absurd! How can something that is from before Victorian times be considered racist? If you look for it you will always find some form of discrimination any where.

Why should peoples history and tradition be analyised and torn apart by others? If the character was blond and blue eyed and a German complained that it was offensive would it of even got a story?

  • 25.
  • At 01:45 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Machteld Erkelens wrote:

I am Dutch, was born and bred in Holland and have lived in the UK for the last 12 years. With interest I read your article on Sinterklaas today. Thank you very much for finding some interesting details, one of which however I find questionable. I have never heard of the name Sleipnir in connection with Sinterklaas' horse. As far as I know, he is being referred to as "The horse of Sinterklaas" or "de schimmel" (=white horse) or, recently, sometimes "Amerigo". My guess is that Sleipnir has little to do with Sinterklaas.

  • 26.
  • At 01:59 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Mark Lyndon wrote:

St Nicolas's day is celebrated throughout the Continent. In Austria and Germany, St Nicolas is accompanied by Crampus,a goblin like character, who does not necessarily resemble the Dutch version. In Poland, the role is undertaken by a bunch of twigs.
Many years ago,I played "Nicolo" at an Austrian childrens Christmas party. Bob Flagge, who portrayed Big Brother in the film 1984, played Crampus.

  • 27.
  • At 02:03 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Danielle wrote:

In Holland we celebrate "Sinterklaas" on the 5th of december not the 6th.

  • 28.
  • At 02:05 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Milê wrote:

Thank you for this insight. I have always wondered about this. Nice to see that you are bringing up issues that exceed in interest the boring EU beaurocrats.

  • 29.
  • At 02:07 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Marvin the Martian wrote:

Sleipnir?? What? But...
No.

Sinterklaas' horse is called "Americo" in Holland --- you can look it up in any online santa-ABC.

In Flanders it's called "Goed-weer-vandaag" ("nice-weather-today") in the Odysseus/Nemo tradition of names to derail dialogues.

  • 30.
  • At 02:16 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • SassyB wrote:

In Berlin, on the 5th December - St Nicholas' Eve - children put out their shoes or slippers when they go to bed. If they have been good St Nicholas visits and fills them with lots of goodies, e.g. sweets/nuts/apples/oranges.

My mother was German and when she moved to the UK just after the war she carried on the tradition with us children. How we loved December! And we always pinched our dad's shoes to put out because they were the biggest and held so much more!

  • 31.
  • At 02:20 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Chris wrote:

Always allowing for the fact that things may be different in Belgium and in the Netherlands where I live, but Mark seems to be in error on a number of issues related to the Dutch and Belgian St Nicholas. Firstly, the presents are distributed on 5 December the eve of his birthday on the 6th. In Dutch he is called Sinterklaas (all one word) which is where the name Santa Claus comes from but Sinterklaas has nothing to do with Christmas. He has no reindeer but rides on a white horse called Amerigo in Holland. Mark also suggests that Zwarte Piet is the scary one and suggests that this is somehow offensive since he is black, but ask any Dutch child and he or she will tell you it's Sinterklaas they're afraid of. He's the one who can tell Black Pete that you've been too naughty and that he should put you in his sack! Black Pete is the children's friend he makes jokes and hands out sweets whether or not you've been good.

I've been following a long discussion on an internet forum on this very subject. Americans find the whole thing terribly racist, the Dutch posters can't work out what the fuss is about. They point out that there are black people as well as white people dressing up as Zwarte Piet and if nobody's offended, what's the problem?
I can't help but wonder whether there really are people being offended by it, or whether there are people being offended on behalf of the people they think SHOULD be offended by it.

  • 33.
  • At 02:32 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Andrea Grobben wrote:

Mr. Mardell -
I think your article posts Zwarte Pete as a creepy character, which goes a bit far. There is definitely a bit of exaggeration in the way he is portrayed - probably reflecting, indeed, an old conception of a black person or a slave.
But associating him to the devil? That is definitely far fetched.
Belgium/Holland are not the only countries which portray a black man in "old" clothes... look into the traditions of the 3 Wise Men from Spain and Mexico.

  • 34.
  • At 02:33 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Martin wrote:

I lived in the Netherlands for two and half years when I was around 10 and went to school in Antwerp. An international school of mostly american flavour with quite a few black kids.

I loved Zwart Pete and so did my american friends, black and white. I didn't see his race, and neither did they from what I could tell.

Why is it that only when we become adults do we start seeing racial slur everywhere when as kids it's meaningless to us?

There was an excellent anti-discrimination "advert" on German television a couple of years back that hammered this point home. Looking at the screen you see a play area and a sole Turkish boy and lots of white boys. To adult eyes it looks like the boy is in danger, that he's being hounded by the others, bullied. It turns out they are just playing hide and seek and in the end you see the slogan "Kids don't discriminate".

Maybe it's time the adults learned that lesson and start seeing the world a bit more through children's eyes.

The title and content of the article puts me in mind of the fact that the devil is also known as "Old Nick".

  • 36.
  • At 02:53 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Donna Louise wrote:

As always Mr. Mardell, thanks for your informative and entertaining blog. I especially want to comment on the "Black Pete" entry as I encountered this character while visiting Europe two years ago.

As a Black American, I can pretty assuredly say that "Black Pete" would not fly in the US. I watched "Black Pete" and Santa from a cafe in horror and I tried to console myself that Europe has its own traditions and perhaps maybe not as much Black/ White antagonism as we have had in our history.

Nevertheless, to see such an offensive character associated with a time of year very important to me as a Christian, it really did make me sad. Thanks for addressing it here.

  • 37.
  • At 02:54 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Martyn wrote:

I am Dutch and father of a 2-year old son who's thankfully slightly too young still to understand Sinterklaas.

Because of Zwarte Piet but also the morality expressed in the whole feast (it's OK to flog naughty children and rich children get the most expensive gifts) I really dread the day that I have to go along with being all excited about it for my son's sake.

I would prefer to ignore it or point out what's wrong with it to him. However, apart from the impossibility of explaining these fine points to a toddler, this whole Sinterklaas business is anchored in Dutch culture / psyche so deeply it would be fighting the windmills left standing by another Spaniard. Sad but true.

  • 38.
  • At 02:56 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Dr CFW Rietveld wrote:

All quite fair on the Sinterklaas and Pieterbaas issue. But I still prefer an 'Xmas' celebration with an educational character, where adults as well as children are corrected with humour and wit, through poems written by Sinterklaas and indeed Pieterbaas, freeing young and old to let off some built up steam to one another, while at the same time leaving a spiritual side to Xmas untrampled by commerce as in the Anglosaxon world.

Also frankly in this world of hedonistic overindulgence and stupidity one should tend to prefer the sobriety and intellect of Sinterklaas and the teasing irony of his helper over a drunken giggling fool, running a capitalist sweatshop in a third world country.

  • 39.
  • At 02:59 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • John wrote:

I was in Durham (England) with a group of Dutch students for this celebration, and the black prankster in question was there alright - but a real black man, who was absolutely delighted to be playing this part, not least because his doing so subverted the questions of white people about whether this is now appropriate etc. Maybe we should relax a bit and learn from people like him instead of continuing the colonial attitudes by telling his sort what should and shouldn't happen?

  • 40.
  • At 03:02 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Wayne Kennedy wrote:

Hi Mark,

I currently live in Amsterdam.

Last year was the first time I saw this and was truly shocked! As spoilt my illusions about the Tolerant Dutch. But what was more upsetting is that the majority of Dutch people I spoke with just don't seem to understand that it is offensive......and usually respond with "oh no, not this again". It offends on a rascist and religious level.

Most people in the UK are unaware of this practice so thanks for bringing it to light.

Rgds

Wayne

  • 41.
  • At 03:03 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Brian keith wrote:

Zwart Pete; are the PC people going to try and have hime banned? Its time the PC people are banned. They have tried to get many Christmas things and indeed Christmas banned, I refused to give anything to charities who support this idea somebody, somewhere my have their feeling hurt. I also like Gollywogs.

When political correctness starts to put at risk cultural traditions that, in function, do no harm, it has gone too far.

And yes, I do know I sound like a Daily Mail letter writer, but I still think my point is reasonable.

At least two of my black friends had golly wogs as children and one of them takes every opportunity to complain that they were replaced for spurious reasons that made guilt-ridden do-gooders feel better about themselves.

  • 43.
  • At 03:09 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Wayne Kennedy wrote:

Hi Mark,

I currently live in Amsterdam.

Last year was the first time I saw this and was truly shocked! As spoilt my illusions about the Tolerant Dutch. But what was more upsetting is that the majority of Dutch people I spoke with just don't seem to understand that it is offensive......and usually respond with "oh no, not this again". It offends on a rascist and religious level.

Most people in the UK are unaware of this practice so thanks for bringing it to light.

Rgds


Wayne

  • 44.
  • At 03:11 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • David Myles wrote:

What a wonderful and as usual from Mr Mardell insightful article. We know so little about our closest neighbours and suprisingly close linguistic cousins of Flanders and the Netherlands.

My friend Peter, who having lived in Rotterdam for many years has confused me ever since returning to the UK by threatening his Children by saying that he is Zwarte Piet and they will get nothing but coal for christmas unless they behave. Now I understand what he has been saying.

  • 45.
  • At 03:18 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Ricahard wrote:

Why have you illustrated this witha picture of Father Christmas not Sintaklaas? The Sint should be wearing a red cloak and bishop's mitre as you describe!

  • 46.
  • At 03:20 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Marvin the Martian wrote:

Sleipnir?? What? But...
No.

Sinterklaas' horse is called "Americo" in Holland --- you can look it up in any online santa-ABC.

In Flanders it's called "Goed-weer-vandaag" ("nice-weather-today") in the Odysseus/Nemo tradition of names to derail dialogues.

  • 47.
  • At 03:20 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Ton van Harreveld wrote:

It is always funny to see your national quirks explained. As a Dutchman living in Spain I realize that the 80 year Spanish occupation left many links between Dutch and Spanish culture and language. In Spain the presents come with the Three Kings, who arrive on horses and one is the Moorish king. I don't know the precise historic link, but it looks very familiar to someone who grew up with Sinterklaas. And details change when traditions are hijacked to other cultures. Father Christmas is a far cry from Sinterklaas....as we can see on the inapproprate picture that goes with Marc Mardell's entertaining piece.

  • 48.
  • At 03:26 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Frans van der Mark wrote:

Very nice piece. I have to correct you on the date children receive gifts, at least here in the Netherlands. The presents are unwrapped on December 5 (not 6), on the eve of Sinterklaas' birthday !

  • 49.
  • At 03:31 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Ben, 20 wrote:

As a Brit who spent all of his childhood in Brussels, I always look forward to "la Saint Nicolas". As a small child in a belgian nursery, I was often confused as to why the other toddlers would come in on, what was for me a normal day, with brand new toys that they had received that morning. My parents decided they would buy me one little toy and some chocolate so that I wouldn't feel left out. I would of course get the rest of my presents on Christmas Day back in the UK with the rest of the family. They have done this every year since and it has become part of our Christmas celebrations, along with advent calendars, a tree and the rest of the traditional English Christmas. Even though I moved back to the UK for university, I eagerly await the 6th of December and today was no different! As for the story about Black Peter I was always told he was Saint Nicolas' "assistant". I think the possible dark reality behind him seems to fit but to everybody in the Lowlands it is just an old story which the children love and like our Santa Claus the origin and history is not fully known.

  • 50.
  • At 03:34 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • G.R.Bakker wrote:

It is the 5th of December, not the 6th...

  • 51.
  • At 03:38 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Bernard wrote:

Offensive?
How about calling it affirmative action? Saint Nicolas employing lots of non-white people to do all the work he can't do.

in any case: the saint without his helpers doesn't work.

  • 52.
  • At 03:39 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Ben, 20 wrote:

As a Brit who spent all of his childhood in Brussels, I always look forward to "la Saint Nicolas". As a small child in a belgian nursery, I was often confused as to why the other toddlers would come in on, what was for me a normal day, with brand new toys that they had received that morning. My parents decided they would buy me one little toy and some chocolate so that I wouldn't feel left out. I would of course get the rest of my presents on Christmas Day back in the UK with the rest of the family. They have done this every year since and it has become part of our Christmas celebrations, along with advent calendars, a tree and the rest of the traditional English Christmas. Even though I moved back to the UK for university, I eagerly await the 6th of December and today was no different! As for the story about Black Peter I was always told he was Saint Nicolas' "assistant". I think the possible dark reality behind him seems to fit but to everybody in the Lowlands it is just an old story which the children love and like our Santa Claus the origin and history is not fully known.

  • 53.
  • At 03:50 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Julian van Klaveren wrote:

Dear Mr Mardell,

It's a pity that the discussion of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch, not Sinter Klaas) always turns into a discussion about the alleged racist undertones of Zwarte Piet. Yes, it is true that it seems a bit bad when taken at face value but at the same time he is never portrayed as someone to look down upon.

Zwarte Piet is the Saint's jester, the funny acrobat, the prankster. He is not a slave and he is never treated in a racist way, as an unequal, as a mere servant. Piet is an integral part of the phenomenon that is Sinterklaas and we all love him as much as we do the bishop himself. And if we all appreciate him so much, how could that lead to racism? Accept it and leave it be, hardly anybody sees it as a problem these days. It is un-pc and maybe therefore all the more fun.

Lastly, I would like that in Belgium Sinterklaas is celebrated on the 6th (his official day in the Catholic Church calendar) but in Holland people celebrate on the eve of St Nicholas, known as Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (St Nicholas' eve and Presents evening respectively).

Furthermore, the historic origin of Sint Nicholas' horse is probably Odin's Sleipnir but he is actually called something different nowadays. In Holland the horse's name is Amerigo and in Belgium it's Mooi Weer Vandaag (Nice weather today).

  • 54.
  • At 03:59 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Gerard wrote:

Spanish soldiers exotic? Spain was never *that* far from Belgium.

  • 55.
  • At 04:15 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Wayne Kennedy wrote:

My first reaction to Zwarte Piet was one of absolute horror. Crazy in a modern, "progressive & tolerant" country.

Dutch people will always tell me "Oh, but it's all in good fun," "He's not a real black person."
Yes, true, point is if it were a real black person the act would be so humiliating as to provoke an outrage......maybe?

Zwarte Piet is another sign of the open divide between tolerance and acceptance, between a multi-cultural society and one which is Dutch with immigrants on the begrudging edge.

It explains the growing racial divides in this small country and why the Dutch just don't get it when it comes to integrating new populations.The result has been tension, fear, resentment on both sides.........to me it just shows a society that in its self-congratulatory claims of tolerance denies some very sinister undercurrents.

  • 56.
  • At 04:21 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Wayne Kennedy wrote:

My first reaction to Zwarte Piet was one of absolute horror. Crazy in a modern, "progressive & tolerant" country.

Dutch people will always tell me "Oh, but it's all in good fun," "He's not a real black person."
Yes, true, if it were a real black person the act would be so humiliating as to provoke an outrage......maybe?

Zwarte Piet is another sign of the open divide between tolerance and acceptance, between a multi-cultural society and one which is Dutch with immigrants on the outside.

It also explains the racial divide in the Netherlands and why the Dutch just don't get it when it comes to integrating new populations......to me it just shows the Dutch self-congratulatory claims of tolerance deny some very sinister undercurrents.

  • 57.
  • At 04:37 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • pierre lefevre wrote:

This is unfortunately a typically PC take from PC BBC.
This concept of Black Pete being in anyway related to Africans doesn't make any sense from an historical perspective.
Black has always been the colour used to describe something menacing and is related to the darkness of the night like in the infamous: 'there is something of the night about him'.
There are numerous examples of the use of the black colour in expressions like: 'this is not black and white' or 'the black death' or 'black masses' and these are always related to darkness.
As mentioned all this predates colonial times and even any - popular - knowledge of Africa and Africans.
Hope the BBC will come to some sense about all this.
I, as a Belgian, am certainly not embarrassed about this wonderful tradition that gave me wonderful memories from my young age.
Pierre Lefevre

  • 58.
  • At 04:42 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Thomas Patricio wrote:

Great report Mark!
I'll admit Black Pete is pretty un-politically correct, but the absurdity of it did bring a smile to my face.
However, for me, the most fascinating thing on your report is how it gives us a glimpse of Europe's cultural diversity and how no single culture lives isolated from each other. Europe is full of customs that links its people in the most fascinating ways. Europeans are all different, yet equal in the links they share with each other. To all nationalists who say they have nothing in common with others, this report totally disproves them.

Thomas Patricio
Toronto, Canada

  • 59.
  • At 04:44 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Stella wrote:

Hello,

The Dutch children got their presents yesterday - the 5 th. of course. Pakjes avond. The Sint has already gone home on 6 th.Dec.
Get it right please !

  • 60.
  • At 05:05 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Cloggie in Jockland wrote:

Almost correct, other than that in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas traditionally brings presents on the eve of his birthday (so 5 December).

I presume this is so he has more time for the children in Flanders on the 6th (as well as some private time to celebrate his birthday).

  • 61.
  • At 05:08 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Johan Van Overbeke wrote:

I don't understand the squirming bit ... Izzit coz e's black ?

I've grown up with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet since the fifties and I can't think of any-one who ever saw a racial - or any other for that matter - offense in the Piet character. He is Sinterklaas' helper and best friend, and he happens to be black. There were quite a lot of them going about in medieval Spain, you know.

Personally I would expect a lot more PC huffing and puffing about Punch : after all, the fellow treats his wife like, well, a punchbag, doesn't he ?

Shouldn't we all be a bit more relaxed about mythical or historical characters?

  • 62.
  • At 05:16 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Reinout de Waal wrote:

As a Dutchman I am puzzled by the numerous mistakes and use of wrong names in this blog. We don't use St Nick, Sleipnir, Santa and other such references. The pictures are all wrong too. And Sinterklaas is on december 5th, not the 6th. His mitre is red, not gold.
Santa is not Dutch nor do we celebrate this derivative of Sinterklaas, who has nothing to do with Christmas.
I have never met a Dutchman who is embarassed about Zwarte Piet being well..black. What is wrong with being black?
Dutch culture hasn't gone through the hartbreaking segregation issues of the US or the deliberate suppression of blacks and Indians as in the British Empire.
So for us it is not an offensive caricature of a black man.
Nor has it anything to do with the fashion in the UK under Victoria.
Have a good look at the paintings of the Dutch Masters of the Golden Age. You will find many portrayels of black people in the retinue of noblemen and seafarers. And that is not suprising because in the 17th century Holland ruled the waves, from the West Indies, along the coasts of Africa to the Far East.
Please don't project your cultural issues on our precious traditions.

  • 63.
  • At 05:19 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Derek Tunnicliffe wrote:

"Christmas" is celebrated on St Nicholas Day in Spain, too (any link here?).

Maybe you could mention Santa Claus' origins to our St Nick (Sarkozy): it might help him get out of his anti-Turkish paranoia. (Just a Christmas thought).

  • 64.
  • At 05:23 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Maria Amadei Ashot wrote:

THANK YOU, MR MARDELL!

  • 65.
  • At 05:57 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • lorentz wrote:

Why are you imposing the BBC's political correctness on other nations?

  • 66.
  • At 06:34 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Larelle Read wrote:

I grew up in Australia and I have never heard of the association between this character "Black Pete" and Santa Claus. I had never heard of this character until I read Mark Mardell's story. Perhaps it was deemed offensive to Aboriginals in Australia, so children were never told of the story? I can only speak for myself, not any other Australians, but I'm sure very few, if any, would be familiar with the "Black Pete" character.

There are many other lovely Christmas traditions. I don't think something like the Black Peter persona needs to continue as it must be horribly offensive to everyone who comes into contact with this "blacked-up character".

  • 67.
  • At 07:03 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • mandy wrote:

6 december??-sinterklaas is december 5.

  • 68.
  • At 07:16 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • guenther wrote:

very interesting! in austria st. nick is accompanied by a more devilish creature, we call krampus, and he most certainly is a scarry fellow. in my opinion he is more related to a demon or the devil himself than to any european idea of a black man - and we didnt have the spanish in austria either, so... any ideas on that?

  • 69.
  • At 07:17 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Igor wrote:

Another incursion of (Anglosaxon?) political correctness into venerable European traditions. So what if he's Zwarte Piet? Does that mean kids will grow up being racist? Hardly. Removing him (and then possibly replacing him with some bland corporate-style mascot) would be just as silly as the complaints against him.

  • 70.
  • At 07:32 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Jac wrote:

Hi, While it's possible Pete is pre-Christian, I doubt his depiction is. It looks *surprisingly* similar to caricatures of blacks from the early 20th century. Perhaps this aspect (the depiction of Pete, not the history, which may well be as innocuous as you seem to want it to be) is what you should research. Otherwise, yes, it does make you feel much better for laughing and letting your kids join in with the Christmas fun. White British myself, I have a few Swedish friends of Tanzanian origin who are quite dark in complexion. Going to elementary school where the scary helper looks just like you is traumatising and demoralising, but I suppose it would be too PC to complain about it (though the mother of one friend refused to let her go to school during the week Pete was around in protest). . .

  • 71.
  • At 07:42 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Phil Richardson wrote:

Actually, in the Netherlands at any rate, Sinterklaas's horse is always white and is the horse is called Schimmel, which actually is a word for a white horse.
I've never thought of Zwarte Piet as being racist and most people who do are not Dutch themselves. Zwarte Piet is fun and give the children sweets and they do naughty jokes on people, not like Santa's lame little elves. Kids dress up as Zwarte Piet and see him as a childhood idol! Most Dutch people, whether they are white or black, can't see what is so racist about having black people included as an integral part of a fun and favourite tradition. Zwarte Pieten aren't degraded or seen as bad or inferior, so what is discrimatory about their use? You don't hear people up in arms about elves being insulting to people with stunted growth now do you.

  • 72.
  • At 08:09 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • DaveH wrote:

Mark,

You are just being silly, looking for something which is not there any more than "blackboards" being racist (but not white elephants somnehow). Chuck the Thought Police manual in the bin and enjoy the festive period.

  • 73.
  • At 08:18 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Geert-Jan wrote:

Here in Holland, everyone knows Sinterklaas' horse is called Americo XD

  • 74.
  • At 08:38 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Nadine Hengen wrote:

I was intrigued by the fact the "Zwarte Piet" is so different from the Luxembourg "Housecker", who tends to be dressed in black, and sack-cloth, carrying a coal sack, with coalmarks on his cheeks (but he himself always
has white skin - no caricature here). He leaves coal to naughty children, and sticks to their parents, so they can whip them.

Incidentally, in old Luxembourgish tales, Saint Nicolas the Bishop and Housecker walk the streets together. I remember them arriving on a London Bus, a posh car, horse-drawn carriage or anything else exotic the local government could come up with that year.

  • 75.
  • At 08:50 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Maureen wrote:

Great article, very funny but you addressed all the questions us Americans would want answered. I read it to my kids and they couldn't believe that something so un-PC was still carried out but I don't think any racism is intended. It's just we have been taught any portrayal of a black man by a white person is forbidden and somehow always means racism even though it is innocent. I will warn them about being carried back in the sack, though. Very effective.

  • 76.
  • At 09:00 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Dorothy Blackie wrote:

Oh for goodness' sake ........... my husband and I live in Den Haag and have done so for over 7 years now. When we first encountered the Black Piet tradition we were shocked to the core of our uptight, p.c., British souls, but as with so many things in The Netherlands we have found that the reason the Dutch appear to be so liberal and relaxed is that as a nation they are so much more grown-up than we are. They (generalising of course) are more able to separate what is truly important and what is not. Surely Mark Mardell can find something more important to write about?
We had a friend visiting last year and she too was amazed at the sight of hundreds of blacked-up white people parading through town ..... except they weren't all white people, we saw some people with brown skin in the parade, wearing the costume and the wig and the gloves. They were Dutch and they were enjoying the tradition of thrilling thousands of children as much as anyone.

  • 77.
  • At 09:01 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • B. Ward Holz wrote:

At the small, Franciscan college I attended in Wisconsin, USA, during the mid-'80s, Saint Nick and Black Peter came to the dorms. The director of student housing would select two students who had made significant contributions to the campus community to play the roles. It was a great honor. Pete would dress in black but not done make up or other features associated with African-Americans. I remember well the year the director came to me for advice. His choice for Black Peter that year was a good friend---who also happened to be African-American. The question was whether Chip would be offended. Given both the knowledge that this was seen as an honor and that it had no real racial overtones, it would not be a problem. Chip did see it as an honor. For years following, I sent Saint Nick presents to the children of many of my old classmates. Time and the advancing age of those kids has ended the practice, unfortunately.

  • 78.
  • At 09:58 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Lukas wrote:

We in South Tyrol have a smimilar tradition. St. Nikolaus, as we call him, comes to our homes in the afternoon/evening and has with him a little book in which he "magically" finds information about each child. He then proceeds to tell them to "remain" good kids and lastly hands out a basket of fruits and sweets. With him are Knecht Ruprecht, his helped and the notorious "krampus", which are supposed to scare the children if they behaved badly the previous year. They are scary looking men in fur costumes and carry horns on their heads. Their faces are black and red coloured but I do not believe that this is offensive to black people. Unfortunately, I have not been at home on the 6th of December for quite some years and I would probably be too old by now to get any candy..but my mom still sends me a St. Nikolaus candy bag every year to wherever I am.
On a different note: I think you should really look into fixing the problems with your comment board as there have recently been numerous occasions where there had been an issue. Anyways, happy Nikolaus to everyone.

  • 79.
  • At 10:30 PM on 06 Dec 2007,
  • Julian van Klaveren wrote:

Dear Mr Mardell,

It's a pity that the discussion of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch, not Sinter Klaas) always turns into a discussion about the alleged racist undertones of Zwarte Piet. Yes, it is true that it seems a bit bad when taken at face value but at the same time he is never portrayed as someone to look down upon.

Zwarte Piet is the Saint's jester, the funny acrobat, the prankster. He is not a slave and he is never treated in a racist way, as an unequal, as a mere servant. Piet is an integral part of the phenomenon that is Sinterklaas and we all love him as much as we do the bishop himself. And if we all appreciate him so much, how could that lead to racism? Accept it and leave it be, hardly anybody sees it as a problem these days. It is un-pc and maybe therefore all the more fun.

Lastly, I would like that in Belgium Sinterklaas is celebrated on the 6th (his official day in the Catholic Church calendar) but in Holland people celebrate on the eve of St Nicholas, known as Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (St Nicholas' eve and Presents evening respectively).

Furthermore, the historic origin of Sint Nicholas' horse is probably Odin's Sleipnir but he is actually called something different nowadays. In Holland the horse's name is Amerigo and in Belgium it's Mooi Weer Vandaag (Nice weather today).

Mark, Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 6 in Belgium, December 5 in The Netherlands. After your forefathers lifted New Amsterdam from my forefathers, Saint Nicholas was relocated to Christmas, with typical ruthless Anglo-Saxon efficiency.

  • 81.
  • At 07:21 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Nigel Kavanagh wrote:

That's a good explanation. After living in Holland for a couple of years it's probably the most only alien thing about the Dutch / Flemish culture.

Maybe with time they'll drop the potentially offensive appearance of Black Piet and he'll look a bit more like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. ( if you buy the coming down the chimney story !).


  • 82.
  • At 07:43 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Chris Wood wrote:

Spent the last weekend in Brussels and thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas parade in the town square, complete with Santa Claus and several 'blacked-up' Black Peters, who were distributing sweets to all of the kids. All totally harmless fun and I didn't see the beginnings of any race riots or hear the sounds of society collapsing around my ears. The fact that this raises eyebrows on our side of the Channel is proof-positive the British have been indoctrinated to believe that any representation of a Negro (or any other member of an 'ethnic minority') immediately equals racism. This fully illustrates the failure of the great British "multi-culturism" experiment. Luckily, the rest of Europe isn't quite so obsessed by this insane political correctness and haven't (yet!) adopted the English (intentional use) practice of subjugating and repressing their own cultural traditions, in a desperate and desperately sad, attempt not to offend anyone who's not ethnically 'British'. I know the BBC won't dare to post this comment - we're allowed to have freedom of speech, just so long as we don't dare say anything that anyone else might possibly find offensive!!

  • 83.
  • At 08:19 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Charles Heal wrote:

As a long-term ex-pat resident in the low countries my family and I have come to love the arrival of St Nic early in December. The only problem we have is how to drip feed the Chocolate which St Nic gives out in massive bundles. Yes our 3 year old prefers Black Pete to Nic!

  • 84.
  • At 08:27 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Francis Zondervan wrote:

May I remind you that St. Nicolaas, or Sinterklaas, has been celebrated for hundreds of years in the Netherlands. Go to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and you will see a 17th painting of a family celebrating his birthday by Jan Steen.
Father Christmas is nothing but an 19th century American, heavily commercialised, make-believe figure, whose ancestor is probably the Dutch St. Nicolaas, who reached the American shores on the back of the Dutch settlers of nowadays New York.

Yours sincerely,

Francis Zondervan

  • 85.
  • At 08:50 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • sophie Raynor wrote:

It is interesting to read alternative hypotheses as to the origin of Zwarte Piet. I have always assumed that he began as a slave (particular since Sinterklaas now seems to have many Pietjes). Rather than gasp and gawp and try to protect our children from such obviously politically incorrect imagery (which, in the Netherlands at least, is not a possibility and may confuse them further), I believe that it should be seen as an oppurtunity to educate our children in Europe's collonial heritage.
With Zwarte Piet's help, we can begin to teach even children of a very young age about some of the horrors of the slave trade. And who knows, perhaps it will increase their awareness of social and political issues today and just how fortunate they are.

Maybe I am hopelessly naive. I would like to think that I am much less so than those (mainly Brits and Americans) who think they can get through Sinterklaas in the low-Countries without their children noticing the thousands of brightly clothed, boot-polished Pietjes which fill our towns, schools shops and television screens at this time of year.

  • 86.
  • At 09:44 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Nicky wrote:

I spent some time in Malaysia which had a sizeable Dutch community and this is where I first encountered Black Peter.

At the time, I was just interested in the sweets he gave out. I'd forgotten all about it until relatively recently and even explaining who Black Peter was made me look back at the experience and think - what was that all about?

Yes it's a Christmas tradition in some countries but I'm surprised it's still going.

  • 87.
  • At 09:50 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Marlene wrote:

so why did you, in your article on 'St. Nick' use a picture not of Sinterklaas but of Santa Claus (different culture)? Sinterklaas would have been easily photographed had you actually attended one of his many festive arrivals, a most impressive event (at least to children) that usually takes place in the 2nd weekend of November.
Missed chance laddy...

  • 88.
  • At 09:51 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Nick den Uijl wrote:

Sinterklaas, or Sint Nicolaas (never: "Sinter Klaas"), has a white horse named "Amerigo". No kid in the Netherlands or Belgium would know of a horse called "Sleipnir". They do know about Amerigo (who is adored as much as Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are). Especially for Amerigo, they stick carrots in their shoes, which they place in front of the hearth (if possible) or door. In the middle of the night, Zwarte Piet will climb through the chimney, collect the carrots (and other tokens of affection) and leave behind a present, before returning to Sinterklaas who is riding the rooftops on Amerigo's back.

  • 89.
  • At 09:53 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Lars wrote:

The origins of Sinterklaas can probably be found, as is usually the case with traditions, in a mixure of different kinds of traditions, Christian and pre-Christian.
Concerning the racial undertones of Sinterklaas. To me it seems likely that Zwarte Piet is a mixture of both a pre-Christian depiction of a Devil and a later image of a black person. It is probably safe to assume that some racial ideas of a few centuries back can be discovered in the imagery of Sinterklaas. However, many traditions can be traced back to ideas that are anything but politically correct.
The fact is that the meanings of traditions change with time, and what matters is that right now no Dutch person would recognise racist ideas in Sinterklaas. In fact many dutch children have the fervent wish to become a Zwarte Piet and want to go to Zwarte Piet School. The only people who do see the racist undertones in Sinterklaas are usually foreigners who have not grown up with the tradition.

An interesting side of the story to end with might be that Sinterklaas is also celebrated on the Dutch Antilles, where Sinterklaas is often painted white.

  • 90.
  • At 09:56 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Chris wrote:

Your not far wrong.

However Black pete comes from the Flemish Belgian Tradition, from which Santa rides a donkey rather than a horse.

The horse riding Santa comes from the French Belgian tradition, who has a traveling companion called Père Fouettard (the spanking father), instead of black Pete.

I believe originally Black Pete was as you say supposed to embody Satan's spirit, on 'the one day of the year that good conquers evil'.

However some years later (at least in Belgium) this was updated, and Black Pete was thought to be a slave that St Nick picked up from a colony, most likely the Congo (as this historical change coincides with the Belgian Colonisation of the Congo).

In 2006 'black pete' was replaced with 'the rainbow petes' for obvious racial reasons.

  • 91.
  • At 10:42 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

A few points where correction is needed.

First, I grew up in Holland, and loved the celebration of St. Nicolas, the Patron Saint of Children. Schools were abound with stories of his good deeds to children. Naturally, his birth date of December 6th is important to note.

St. Nicolas was later adopted by the Germans, and his Red Robes and Golden Mitter were replaced with green clothes and a floppy hat - his name also change to Santa Klause (a mix of Spanish and German).

Only in the 20th century did Santa come on the sceen thanks to the Coca-Cola company portraying him as a rather large, rosy faced, gentleman with a very white bushy beared.

The main point of correction is thus that St. Nicolas (in my mind anyway), has never had anything to do with the celebration of Christmas - thus the statement of "Christmas comming early", is just incorrect.

  • 92.
  • At 10:53 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • cherie dougherty wrote:

See, you better be a good girl!

  • 93.
  • At 11:01 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Nick Jones wrote:

What I find intriguing is the fusion of religious expression down through the centuries which have culminated in this rather curious duo.

To me Santa, in his various guises, is something of a religious and cultural 'mash-up', to use a modern-day phrase.

Nonetheless, the depiction of these characters, such as it is, I think owes more to superstition than it does tradition.

  • 94.
  • At 11:33 AM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Bertinos wrote:

The explanation that was given when I was a child, is that Pete is black because he's going down the chimney to deliver St. Nicholas' presents at the fire place.
After the independence of Dutch-speaking, but mainly black Surinam it was decided there that the Petes should be white, but quite soon they were black again. Unfortunately, I don't know why.

  • 95.
  • At 12:07 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Renaat wrote:

I once heard that in the times of Belgian Congo Zwarte Piet there was always a wighed black coloured white person. So whatever his origins are, Zwarte Piet is just Zwarte Piet for a long while now and not an African person.

  • 96.
  • At 12:14 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • chris hughes wrote:

Just a short note o point out that st nicholas was released from prison when Constantine adopted Christianity for the Roman Empire and nicholas was not therefore killed but died of natural causes.

  • 97.
  • At 12:21 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Chaia wrote:

A few years ago I took the train in the east of the Netherlands to the town where I was born. As that part of the country is not accesible to steam ships, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive by train.
There were four people from our carriage coming off the train at that station; Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet, an African asylum seeker and me. The asylum seeker got confused by the children with Zwarte Piet (it is a rural white community) and the children gave him the warmest welcome he will ever have had. He looked bemused, but delighted as well. On this occasion it was definitely a case of positive discrimination.

A footnote to the storm of comments so far.

In the 90s, when political correctness was at its peak in the Netherlands as much as anywhere else, it became fashionable to have 'rainbow'-Piets, with skin in deep primal red, green, purple, even gold, to replace the black colour, which was deemed offensive.

This was not seen as an improvement and has largely disappeared after it was ridiculed in public debate - also by some vocal members of the ethnic community.

The kids never liked it much anyway.

  • 99.
  • At 01:30 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Frank wrote:

As a half Spanish Englishman living in Scotland and married to a Dutch wife i love the fact that we can embrace the tradition of Sinterklaas on 5-6 Dec, the three kings on 5 -6 Jan (epiphany when traditionally the kings gave their gifts to Jesus)and Christmas. There are lots of elements of these festivals that go back to simpler times and i worry that applying modern mind sets to them risks losing part of our history and heritage. I for one enjoy having the family fun of shoes out at the start of December for sweeties, presents under a tree on the 25th and shoes again in January for more sweeties. Maybe i'm greedy or maybe i think the more fun and light the better.
Interesting to note that the article has done the usual thing of merging St Nicolas and Father Christmas, which is a common mistake in the UK. I understood they were originally very different, with Father Christmas being a personification of a winter celebration, which got merged with St Nic fairly recently. I read once that Father Christmas' robes were originally supposed to be green with white trim, he had mistletoe and holly around his head, so perhaps a remant of something older altogether? Interesting to ponder anyway.

  • 100.
  • At 04:44 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Lee wrote:

I lived in Germany when I was young and remember celebrating this festival: I was petrified when I first saw Black Pete and I believe I screamed. Thanks for the embarassing memories!

  • 101.
  • At 04:51 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Hugh Colyer wrote:

In France, Pere Fouettard, as he is called, is not blacked up, he just wears a brown cloak and has a cat-o'-nine-tails to whip the children...

  • 102.
  • At 05:21 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Ada wrote:

Sinterklaas and its various regional names is celebrated in most continental Europe, both in Catholic/Protestant and Orthodox communities. In Romania, an Orthodox country, in November children write letters to Father Nicholas asking for presents, and on the evening of 5 December they put their shoes at the window. Over night, Father Nicholas passes by every child's home on his flying carriage and leaves presents for the nice and a stick for the naughty. 6 December is every child's most exciting morning of the year, when they wake up at dawn to find their presents. And the tradition has been there for as long as living memory, on the shores of both the North Sea and the Black.

  • 103.
  • At 07:43 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Michael wrote:

Though the issue of Zwarte Piet is a commonly raised one I congratulate Mark on something I hadn't come across before, namely the link between the Sint's horse and Sleipnir.

What is just as interesting though are the comments, seeming to find numerous 'faults'. Whether that is due to defensiveness (or pedantry) I'll leave you to decide.

Perhaps some people forgot that you live in Belgium, not the Netherlands, or just didn't have the time to read the full article, or check any of the points made.

As to whether it's just a tradition and doesn't reflect anything more, in Flanders case I would suggest it would have more weight if it was balanced with something else. Perhaps someone presenting a program on television who looked like there family might, just might, indeed have originally come from somewhere else.

Unfortunately in ten years I can't remember that ever being the case.

  • 104.
  • At 08:12 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Johan van Slooten wrote:

Funny thing is that almost all negative comments on Zwarte Piet come from people who are not Dutch or Belgian and who, simply, don't understand this tradition. It is much more than just a white man dressing up as a black man. I am Dutch and I don't see - and have never seen - anything wrong in the Zwarte Piet character. As children we were not brought up with the idea that Zwarte Piet was a slave or a helpless black man. No, he was a fun figure, rather than someone to be made fun of.

  • 105.
  • At 09:27 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Kate wrote:

To the Dutch and the people of the Dutch Antilles Zwarte Piet is far from considered racist and shocking. Some years ago in Curacao there was an idea to prohibit the Sinterklaas celebrations as it was discriminatory, the mostly black population of the island was overwhelmingly against such an idea.

Sinterklaas is not discriminatory, it is a tradition and in the world where PC sometimes goes a little crazy, it's something in the Kingdom of the Netherlands that unites all parts of it, Carribean and European, black and white. As a Brit living here I did a double turn at my first glance of Piet, but my husband's family (from Curacao) made it very clear that it was part of their tradition and loved the celebration - Piet and all.

  • 106.
  • At 09:32 PM on 07 Dec 2007,
  • Mrs.Josephine Hyde-Hartley wrote:

Perhaps Zwarte Piet's a distant cousin of our " Brittannia Coconutters"? Nobody seems to know where these come from either..could they be what's left of Santa's original band of helpers?

  • 107.
  • At 09:23 AM on 08 Dec 2007,
  • rob wrote:

Mark,

In Sint-Niklaas (city in Belgium) there is an organisation called "Sintnicolaasgenootschap" or Saint Nicholas Society. They organise training sessions for people who want to dress up as Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet.
check out www.sngvlaanderen.org

  • 108.
  • At 09:24 AM on 08 Dec 2007,
  • Mirek Kondracki wrote:

In the 90s, when political correctness was at its peak in the Netherlands as much as anywhere else, it became fashionable to have 'rainbow'-Piets, with skin in deep primal red, green, purple, even gold, to replace the black colour, which was deemed offensive. [#98]


East Asian immigrants to America
[known in PC parlance as Native Americans] have considered WHITE a colour of death and thus non-PC (avant la lettre).

That's why India..er...Native Americans never used it except for northern tribes ('Native Canadians'?)whose warriers were allowed to ride white horses and to cover themselves with white sheets, but only during winter hunts when the colour, blending with snow, made it easier to sneak on unsuspecting animals.

Nota bene, term "Redskins" is highly non-PC in the US (unlike "Whities") and couple of years ago some PC fana..er...activists even tried to make a famous Washington football team of that name change it.[The effort went nowhere]. However one can still safely use a term "Redcoats" (but only in historical context) and even proclaim "better dead than red", although PC people have promoted "better red than dead" version.

Have yourself a very merry Christ...er...Holiday Season!

  • 109.
  • At 11:34 AM on 08 Dec 2007,
  • PC Fanatic wrote:

Does that make night time or any other absence of light racist, since it's dark and scary? No, this is why evil, dead souls and other scary things are associated with 'dark'. It's like suggesting I'm homophobic because I don't like the colour pink. One could suggest perhaps that the Mr Mardell is being racist, by presuming everyone who associates 'dark' with wrongdoers or perhaps has to keep a light on when they go to bed is inherently racist (even if they don't know it).

  • 110.
  • At 12:45 PM on 08 Dec 2007,
  • Alastair wrote:

Is there not a case to be made that those foreign (principally American and British) people who think that their values and their cultural norms should be imposed on the Dutch and Belgians, are as guilty of racism as those they seek to condemn.

Why should American/British values be seen as more valid than Dutch/Belgian ones?

  • 111.
  • At 12:52 PM on 08 Dec 2007,
  • Dr CFW Rietveld wrote:

Sinterklaas vs Santa Claus

As a dutch I admit is sounds all quite fair on the Sinterklaas and Pieterbaas issue. But still it is an annoying example of the maddening lecturing tone one hears more and more often coming out of the anglosaxon world. I am sure we soon will have an invasion to get us on the right path again.

Still I still prefer an 'Xmas' celebration with an educational character, where adults as well as children are corrected with humour and wit, through poems written by Sinterklaas and indeed Pieterbaas, freeing young and old to let off some built up steam to one another, while at the same time leaving a spiritual side to Xmas untrampled by commerce as in the Anglosaxon world.

Also frankly in this world of hedonistic overindulgence and stupidity one should tend to prefer the sobriety and intellect of Sinterklaas and the teasing irony of his helper over a drunken giggling fool, running a capitalist sweatshop in a third world country.

  • 112.
  • At 03:45 PM on 08 Dec 2007,
  • Alastair wrote:

Why is it racist for white people to impose their cultural values on black people, but not for Americans and British people to impose their cultural values on the Dutch?

  • 113.
  • At 03:52 PM on 08 Dec 2007,
  • Jack R wrote:


As far as the education of our children goes, the E.U. is feeding them propaganda:

'The Europeanisation of Education'.



https://www.civitas.org.uk/blog/2007/12/the_europeanisation_of_educati.html

  • 114.
  • At 05:31 PM on 08 Dec 2007,
  • Mirek Vejvoda wrote:

Mark Mardell is trying to suggest a world with no culture or color. He has got a problem with the color black representing death, the devil, the negative (dark), etc. If you mix cultures to the point that nobody can do or display anything because it would offend someone else, you have killed any culture and live like a clone. I hope your vision will never materialize. In central/eastern Europe, St. Nick is accompanied by the devil and you'll guess right, he is black! The though of him keeps children behaved during the year. And then, St. Nick and their parents can still protect them. A white, green, or pink devil could only be imagined by Mr. Mardell. The language, tradition, and customs, are the carriers of culture. The diversity of culture is what makes this world nice. Don't kill it in the false pretence of equality, but rather accept it with tolerance. In the US, the nativity scene can no longer be displayed in public places and Santa Claus may no longer say Ho, Ho, Ho. Where are we heading, Mr. Mardell?

  • 115.
  • At 01:39 AM on 09 Dec 2007,
  • Maurice wrote:

In many parts of French-speaking Belgium, Zwarte Piet is called Anscrouf. The origin of this is unknown. The term "Père Fouettard" refers to a French tradition and is used more frequently nowadays than in the past. And indeed "Saint Nicolas" has a donkey, not a horse.

In my childhood, Saint Nicolas would come in the night of the 5th to 6th December, and we would discover our toys on the 6th morning. On the 5th evening, we would prepare a glass of cognac or "péket" for Saint Nicolas (the glasses were empty the next morning !) and carrots for his donkey.

  • 116.
  • At 03:57 AM on 09 Dec 2007,
  • AMK wrote:

The portrayal of Zwarte Piet does reflect earlier, derogatory stereotypes. However, perhaps it wouldn't be racist if children were explained the history behind Zwarte Piet so that it was recognized that he was portrayed in this way and had this role because of practices/views at that time. Then it would be clear that Zwarte Piet shouldn't be taken as representative of Africans/Blacks or an attitude towards them.

  • 117.
  • At 08:18 AM on 09 Dec 2007,
  • Roger Withers wrote:

I am so sad that so many (non Dutch)readers feel offended by Swarte Piet. If they dont like it dont go to The Netherlands in December. Why should others force their views on the Dutch. This is their culture and not ours, and maybe the Dutch feel that burning Guy Fawkes is also an unnecessary reminder of anti Catholic intolerance! Long may Swarte Piet continue

Roger

  • 118.
  • At 03:00 PM on 09 Dec 2007,
  • AMK wrote:

The portrayal of Zwarte Piet does reflect earlier, derogatory stereotypes. However, perhaps it wouldn't be racist if children were explained the history behind Zwarte Piet so that it was recognized that he was portrayed in this way and had this role because of practices/views at that time. Then it would be clear that Zwarte Piet shouldn't be taken as representative of Africans/Blacks or an attitude towards them.

  • 119.
  • At 06:01 PM on 09 Dec 2007,
  • Michael wrote:

"In Sint-Niklaas (city in Belgium) there is an organisation called "Sintnicolaasgenootschap" or Saint Nicholas Society. They organise training sessions for people who want to dress up as Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet." - #107 Rob

That'll be the Sint Niklaas where people change their wedding plans when they learn the person presiding is black, 30% vote for the equivalent of the BNP, and a survey of high-school students showed the equivalent number planned to do the same I presume?

An appropriate place it seems.

  • 120.
  • At 06:31 PM on 09 Dec 2007,
  • Jeremy wrote:

As revealed by the minority of posts from minority Dutch - this is probably offensive to most of a minority.
As the posts from Luxumburg and Germany show - the original Black Pete is unlikely to have represented a black person. Therefore it follows that the Dutch version is a corruption which was inevitable during the dehumanising influence of the slave trade.
I would suggest that reverting to the pre-slave trade version of a person covered in soot (or alternatively to represent the Devil) - rather than an offensive Golliwog version originally designed to humiliate, would seem to be a good idea - especially given the present racial tensions in Holland which erupt onto the news at regular intervals.

  • 121.
  • At 07:54 PM on 09 Dec 2007,
  • N. Waters wrote:

In a lot of nonWhite/nonEuropean cultures, the devil and assorted evil spirits are portrayed as white it the cultural mythology. No surprise really, when these cultural myths developed, society was very parochial, with the foreign and strange being depicted as the opposite of the accepted societal norn. Nothing sinister in all this, unless one is of the PC Brigade looking for an issue.

  • 122.
  • At 05:14 AM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Piet de Groot wrote:

How can any Englander comment on the Sinterklaas/Zwarte Piet fun happening each Dec 5th, when they have, in the name of PC gone mad, allowed their culture and their country to be hijacked the way it has. I think that in 5 years England will be the first European country to be ruled under Sharia Law, and still they protest at Swarte Piet? Why don't you get your 'house in order' first?
You cannot even say Merry CHRISTmas any more ..... it is not cricket is it?
The BBC will never allow this to be published as it might offend the minorities!

  • 123.
  • At 07:35 AM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • John wrote:

I am a native Dutch-speaking Belgian, well acquainted with Sint Niklaas, but in all my life I have never heard his horse called Sleipnir.
Where did you find this - in my eyes rather dubious - reference?

Thank you Mark! Zwarte Piet is an antiquated symbol of colonialism and it's about time he had a makeover.

I have lived in the Netherlands for 8 years and am still shocked at seeing the stereotyped imagery in shops and on the streets this time of year. Dutch people do explain Zwarte Piet's blacked up face by saying that he has been down the chimney, but if that's the case why are his clothes pristine? I have yet to hear a plausible explanation.

On a positive note, over the years I've been here I have noticed opinions shifting, people I know acknowledge that it does have racist overtones, so maybe change is coming.

  • 125.
  • At 08:47 AM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • PeterS wrote:

A constant theme in letters to newspapers, teletext, websites etc. is that Britain, The UK, England once commanded world respect. Johnny foreigner quite rightly felt inferior to any Englishman. But now we are the laughing stock of the world

The writers of such letters seem to think that all foreigners avidly follow all events in the UK. What is headline news in the UK must surely be news in Spain, USA, Japan. Labour party donations must be the talking point in every bar in the world and the world is laughing at us.

The reality is that every country is interested only in its own affairs and it takes something fairly dramatic from overseas to knock home news of the front page. We are not laughed at for taking in so many immigrants because almost every country in Europe has its own immigration problem. Why should they bother reading about ours.

What I'm getting at is how insular most countries are. I'm fairly sure that the average person in the UK imagines Xmas being the same the world over. Father Christmas lives in Spain!! what nonsense! It's the north pole (why did we choose the north was it just the association with snow?) Yes a few more widely travelled and receptive Europeans will be aware of the differences but most will think what happens in their country happens the world over

So lets celebrate our cultural differences in Europe. Long live the EU but lets all be different. Don't let the USA swamp us with their culture. Santa Claus is American and his dress is an advert for Coca Cola!!. Long may the Dutch celebrate in their own way. We are all the richer for it.

  • 126.
  • At 10:38 AM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Laurie wrote:

This is one of the most fascinating pieces of information I have ever read. I am a born and raised Californian (USA) and I am trying heroically to comprehend the figure of Swarte Piet.

I don't know what to think, or feel, about Swarte Piet. In California, or anywhere in the USA, a man dressed in black-face would be considered - without any doubt - absolutely a racist statement. The only way I can even imagine such a figure being seen in public is in a parade "celebrating" the KKK, and intended to provoke and disrespect blacks. Americans wouldn't accept such a jester - and it would (absolutely) cause riots and violence - not to mention law suits.

I am fascinated because the cultural icon of Swarte Piet is SO far from ANYTHING I, as an American, have ever been exposed to, except in a history book about deep-south slavery during and after our Civil War.

What an interesting situation this article has brought into my awareness. I honestly don;t know what to think or decide.

  • 127.
  • At 11:28 AM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Jelle wrote:

I find the whole PC arguements to be more racist than Sinterklaas himself. I looked up the history of him to years ago. True, the ancient Germans associated Piet with the devil who was subjugated by the character nowadays called Sinterklaas. Is it racist to associate the color black with evil? If so, we are going to have to forbid a lot of things, starting with Daoism which sees black as all encompassing for everything negative.

The second version of Zwarte Piet having been a slave does lay an obvious connection. But people seem to purposefully forget that Saint Nicolaas freed the slave out of idealism. For such an ancient character as Saint Nicolaas that is a very progressive and anti-racist act. The modern Zwarte Piet thus serves Sinterklaas out of free will and for his own desire to please children.
We may not be very proud of acknowledging slavery as having been part of colonial Europe or the Roman and Byzantine empires. But to stick our head in the sand is an even greater injustice. If anything, Sinterklaas has taught me slavery is wrong and giving a man his freedom back yields rewards much greater than your personal and selfish interests as a slave owner. This imagine of Sinterklaas is one I agree with most, since it is truly more politically correct and fair than any half-minded attempt to change our national holiday.

The current watered down version doesn't spark any controversy. It is popular among Antillean people to who are descendents of African slaves! They are alright with Piet having soot on his face. I think that even if Zwarte Piet really was confirmed to be African, explain to me how a positive portrayal of Africans is so racist?

Yes, Zwarte Piet did have negative traits. He used to spank children and take them to Spain if they were naughty. But I again fail to see how this is racial, unless you want it to be like that. And yes, I used to be a bit frightened by Zwarte Piet because he was an admireable man full of pranks. Sitting on Sinterklaas' lap in front of the whole family frightened me in the same way. It has nothing to do with one being white and the other poor. I'm not a racist, and I like our holiday. I'm not saying I never was racially insensitive because I did make some faux passes in my childhood that would have been un-PC if an adult had said it. But I don't think that was a direct consequence of Zwarte Piet.

I actually pity the PC movement. If Americans and British cannot enjoy Zwarte Piet and see him as a stereotype, maybe it is because they feel awkward about racism in their own countries and the minstel and blaxploitation stereotypes. Dutch people have no heavy conscience about racial segregation, it never existed in the 20th century Netherlands. Somehow, Antilleans, Surinamese and Indonesians are simply seen of fellow countrymen with a different skin color but shared history. Although negligent at times, our people did not support the Dutch Apartheid in South Africa, and Afrikaners were seen as intollerent foreigners.
Of course, Americans and British may also envy us because in their country, you cannot trust a member of the Catholic church with a child on his lap. That's an attrocity that sailed us by completely, thank god.

  • 128.
  • At 12:12 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Davion Ford wrote:

I have lived in Holland now for some time and I have to say that I am very offended by the images of Zwarte Piet that I have to see daily at the end of the year. It is patently offensive and the fact that so many revisions on his story have been made is proof that even Dutch and Belgian people know that this is offensive. That no one simply says, "This is a tradition which stems from a time when people here were not sensitive to these things.", is the aspect of all of this that is the most offensive. As a person of African descent, I have lived my entire life, having to cope with demeaning images of people of color. This is not, however, something that began when I moved to Holland. I am not a person who believes that every such image should be wiped from global society, but I do believe that we all have a right to discuss such matters. To the extent that people continue to ignore the rather obvious origins of this tradition, a dialogue about the appropriateness of Zwarte Piet is hindered. One cannot wipe away the discussion by merely saying that children here in Holland actually like him, or that no one is thinking of things this way. Also, the people here, who are accusing the author of this article of being racist, do nothing to contribute to this discussion. It is almost as if they feel that the author has implicated them in racism so the best counter is to call him a racist. I understand that many people, who grow up with this tradition, do not want to see it changed. I believe that this is why there are such visceral reactions to this article and generally to this discussion. I cannot speak for Belgians but I do know that the Dutch tend to pride themselves on their tolerance. Could it be the case that many people here are unwilling to truly discuss this matter because this might force an acknowledgement that the most important remaining Dutch tradition (this is according to a poll done here in Holland) is of rather dubious and culturally insensitive origins? There are good traditions and there are bad traditions. The bad ones should be changed. But let me be clear. I do not claim that Zwarte Piet should be eliminated or that any changes need to be made at all. What I do say is that this idea that “the appropriateness Zwarte Piet” is a subject which should not be discussed, is closed-minded. This unreasonable discussion attitude is displayed by the people who say, “If you do not like the image then do not come to the low countries during the end of the year.” or “It is wrong for Americans and British people to impose their values on the Dutch.” These comments are the equivalent of saying that you are unwilling to critically discuss the matter for the purposes of resolving the difference of opinion. That having been said, I want to point out that there are indeed more pressing issues with which people could concern themselves, such as the environment, war, and relationships with friends and family. I do not believe that Zwarte Piet is ruining the world or even the worst manifestation of cultural insensitivity. It is what it is. But let’s all stop trying to make it into a progressively more p.c. tale. When we do that we take away our ability to truly critically discuss the matter. Though, I feel that Zwarte Piet is offensive, I do not say that the Dutch must get rid of it. These types of changes must come from within, and it is not my place as an American to say when and how cultural changes here should take place. In my time living here in Holland, I have experienced tolerance, the likes of which is unheard of in the U.S. and I suspect also in most of the U.K. I think Zwarte Piet was so shocking because I just did not expect such an image here. There are people here (not me, but people who were born here and are Dutch citizens) who find the images to be offensive. I think that these people should be able to discuss these matters in a productive way without ad hominems and other non-arguments which only distort and divert. I have the utmost respect for Dutch society and the Dutch people. I am disappointed however in how I am seeing this discussion played out. Let us not bandy around the term “racism” or any similar terms. I do not find Zwarte Piet offensive because I think that Dutch people are on the whole racist. I know that this is not the case. But it is also not the case that the only reason I find it offensive is because I bring my own racial baggage from the U.S. I do not wish to impose my views on the Dutch culture and I also can see the ways in which this discussion has been blown out of proportion. However, I submit to you all, that this discussion is distended in nature largely because there are so many people who are just unwilling to take on a reasonable discussion attitude and work towards a resolution of the difference of opinion on the appropriateness of Zwarte Piet. The most fruitful comments posted on this page are those of the people who acknowledge the culturally insensitive origins of Zwarte Piet and try to seek ways in which this fact can be used to educate children about the errors inherent in cultural insensitive. The least fruit comments are from those of you who merely are unwilling to discuss the matter.

  • 129.
  • At 12:54 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Coloured wrote:

It’s mostly foreigners who come from politically correct and still struggling with skin color issue countries that are offended and complains about Black Piet. They visit or live in the Netherlands and judge the country and its traditions based from their own personal experiences and culture of where they come from. They are narrow minded, emotional, politically correct types who can’t think logically and enjoy a good old tradition without feeling like a victim or voluntarily championing the so-called victims.

  • 130.
  • At 01:23 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Jeroen wrote:

Yup, we have Black Petes, semi-legal drugs, legal euthanasia, legal prostitution... and if you may get offended by any of these items, you're welcome to visit any of the other 40+ European countries.

Note that although the song goes 'Sinterklaas is jarig' (it's Sinterklaas' birthday), 6 December is actually the day he died. It's his nameday, that's what counts.

I for one am happy to have known the tradition as a child - I enjoyed all the fuss and excitement, and later on when I discovered it was all a hoax it greatly helped me think more critically of what I was told about the world, and helped me decide to reject all religions at an early age. Dank u, Sinterklaasje!

  • 131.
  • At 01:23 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • McKenzie wrote:

Hi Mark,

I grew up in Holland and Belgium and remember watching SinterKlaas and Piet arriving by ship in Spaakenburg with great exitement. I can understand the astonishment/anger felt by visitors from the UK or the US when witnessing this for the first time. My parents went through the same. I understand the Dutch point of view that it is a harmless tradition that they have all grown up with.

I heard one version of the Saint Nicholas story from Spain, in which it was actually the Moorish servant who informed the Bishop about the suffering of the local poor and led him to leave gifts (of food and clothing ) for them. In this tradition Peter is seen as much a saint as Nicholas. Should he really be left out? Not sure if this justifies the bootpolish though.

  • 132.
  • At 01:43 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • McKenzie wrote:

Maybe we should start a EU wide

"Treat Piet with respect campaign"

  • 133.
  • At 02:11 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Geeve wrote:

I lived in Belgium, in a town just outside Brussels, for three years. The first time I saw Zwarte Piet I was so shock it took me two day to calm down enough to get angry. Accompanying the experience of seeing Zwarte Piet/s was also the experience of watching children grab and cling to their parents in utter distress as I (a naturally dark skinned person) walked by them. Determined to find in this cultural performance, I stayed out in the festivities for more than two hours. I watched child after child squirm and cry as I passed by them. I watched Piets jump and dance in the street parade. I weaved through the crowd of parade goers and watched parents pick up their children to assure them of security and safety as their eyes popped out of their heads to see me standing next to them, an onlooker as the Piets danced at a comfortable distance. And, I wondered what cultural value the society was trying to instill in their young. After some time, I realized that although in this town there were a significant number of darker skinned persons whom I encountered daily during my first six months, on this day, I walked for two hour and the only dark skinned person/s I came upon were the made-up ones dancing in the streets and square-center and the reflection of myself in the shop windows. Less than a year later, while participating in a cultural sensitivity seminar, a Belgian university student (largely out of frustration with the sensitization process) spoke a truth, "Racism IS one of OUR cultural values." And, so the Sinterklass celebration does its work well, instilling in its young a sensibility of racism that MUST become second nature in order to live effectively in the society. While Belgium is certainly not the only society to do on this issue, it is, likely, one of the most transparent.

  • 134.
  • At 03:32 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Johan wrote:

Should we apologise to foreigners who come to The Netherlands and are not willing to understand one of our most treasured and oldest traditions? I think not. Maybe they should invest a little time and effort into understanding the true meaning of the whole Sinterklaas season instead of complaining about racist undercurrents or nods to our slavery past. If they do, they'll understand that this tradition is one of the least dangerous traditions a country can have.
Just enjoy it. Have a handful of 'pepernoten', laugh at the surprise presents your friends buy you, smile at the children's firm belief in the existence of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Enjoy, and you'll have happy memories for life.

  • 135.
  • At 04:20 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Anonymous wrote:

Actually, Sint Nicolaas is on december 6, but according to good catholic tradition the celebration starts the evening before (like Chrismas eve on dec 24). That way the Sinterklaas celebration takes place on december 5.

  • 136.
  • At 04:47 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Milos UK wrote:

Interestingly, Brits seems to be in the group most outraged by the sole existance of Zwarte Piet(s). Someone mentioned wether they were "legal". And yet British selebrate Novemeber 5th every year with millions of pounds spent on fireworks to remember the day when Guy (Guido) Fawkes and his followers were "hanged, drawn and quartered" for alegedly preparing to blow up Houses of Parlament. Interesting thing is that Guy served some time in Spanish rulled Low Lands where he eventually converted to Catholocism. The story below is from UK's version of Wikipedia.


"Until 1814, the full punishment for the crime of treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in that the condemned prisoner would be:

Dragged on a hurdle (a wooden frame) to the place of execution. (This is one possible meaning of drawn.)
Hanged by the neck for a short time or until almost dead. (hanged).
Disembowelled and emasculated and the genitalia and entrails burned before the condemned's eyes (This is another meaning of drawn. It is often used in cookbooks to denote the disembowelment of chicken or rabbit carcasses before cooking).[2]
Beheaded and the body divided into four parts (quartered)."

  • 137.
  • At 05:07 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Marijcke Klaver wrote:

I was born in Holland during the second world war. This tradition, Sinterklaas, seems to have existed for a long time, my mother and her mother celebrated this as well. Sinterklaas has nothing to do with Christmis, these are two separate entities. At Christmas there were no presents until much later when I was a teenager. Originally Christmas was more of a religious celebration with a real tree, church and a special dinner.I was there when the present giving tradition started.

Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 5. Sinterklaas would come by boat from Spain with Zwarte Piet, his helper, and his white horse with no name. A white horse is called “schimmel” in Dutch and that is the only name it occasionally was referred to. Day to day language it was said Sinterklaas with his horse (paard).

As a child we very much looked forward to this. You even get time off work for this family tradition. A few days before the actual celebration we were allowed to put out our (not my father’s) shoe. We had to sing Sinterklaas songs and put out a carrot for his horse and milk for Sinterklaas. If there was no chimney we could put it in the room. Next morning, if we had sang enough, we would find chocolate letter, initial of your name, chocolate/marsipan frogs or pigs and tum tum. Tum tum are a variety of small candies and, of course, pepernoten. On the evening of 5 December there would be a loud knock on the front door and when we run to open the door and there would be a hugh “teiltje” (metal children bath) filled with presents. Around the dinner table we would all get a turn to open our present. It would all come with little poems, or after unwrapping one layer, you had to hand it over to another person. Also we would get an envelope with instruction to look for more clues in another particular room and finally finding your present. Great fun, chasing all over the house. For 2 years I never mentioned that I really did not believe in Sinterklaas anymore. Afraid that I would not get any presents anymore.

This is a tradition and I do not think we should change it. Everything is changing and our values in which we grew up are all disappearing, one by one. I am living in Canada and now for the second year there is a broe ha over a christmas tree in the courthouse. They are saying it excludes the jewish and moslim tradition. I don’t object to a menorah or other religious symbols, so why should we have to give up everything. It all gets to watered down in a multi cultural society.

Marycke Klaver

  • 138.
  • At 05:18 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • David Lawrence wrote:

I live in New York and my Dutch wife could not originally understand why the Sinterklaas myth isn't more celebrated here as a part of the Dutch heritage of New Amsterdam. Then I showed her Al Jolsen and while she now understands, both her and my two children wish it were not an issue. Zwarte Piet is one of their most favorite people and to lose him would be a sad event (of course they are not naughty). P.S. your picture is of Santa Claus and not Sint.

  • 139.
  • At 07:23 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Mirek Kondracki wrote:

Many of you may not know that after Catholic countries of Eastern and Central Europe were occu...er...liberated by the Soviet Army, Saint Nicholas was sent to GULAG as non-PC and was allowed to return from Siberia only in the late 50s.

His replacement was somebody called
Dyadya Moroz (Gradpa Frost in Russian). But most kids didn't think that Frost was cool; perhaps because gifts he would disseminate during public ceremonies were not so hot, or perhaps also for some other reason.

  • 140.
  • At 07:49 PM on 10 Dec 2007,
  • Michael wrote:

"I honestly don't know what to think or decide." - #126 Laurie

Sometimes the first feeling is the correct one.

"All other things being equal, the simplest answer is the best" - Occam's razor and all that.

And that I guess is part of the problem I find here. In Belgium most definitely and, the more I see, possibly in the Netherlands as well.

Why is Zwarte Piet the way he is?, "because". Why are there so few (none in the case of Flanders) black/ethnic people presenting programmes on television?, "because". Why is this job only for 'native' Dutch speakers?, "because". Why do you only want to hire white people?, "because". Why can't my [black/ethnic] friend come in?, "because".

So many different answers, but still the same question.

  • 141.
  • At 09:23 AM on 11 Dec 2007,
  • Lucy wrote:

Should the point not be that everyone loves Zwarte Piet, especially children? Zwarte Piet is a fun character, he should not be offensive to anyone as he is not an evil portrayal, he is simply a fun figure who gives out sweets and moreover encourages good behaviour. He is a fun loving black person doing good deeds as part of an old tradition, in my opinion it should not be viewed as any sort of insult. The insult should come if he were portrayed as stealing or the devil or something which would shed a bad light otherwise should it not be viewed as good?
Having moved to the Netherlands this year, I have just experienced my first Sinterklaas and my first reaction was to be a little shocked until I realised that it is just that I have been brainwashed to find everything offensive by the totally over the top PC Brigade in England. It should be no more offensive for a white person to "black up" than it is for me, a brunette, to put a blond wig on.
Black children and white children alike enjoy the festivities of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands without a thought to the possibly un-PC connertations of Zwarte Piet so why suddenly make it a taboo.

  • 142.
  • At 12:57 PM on 11 Dec 2007,
  • Laurie wrote:

I commented earlier in this blog reply and have been thinking about this issue for a whole day now. Someone up there ^ ^ ^ said that perhaps Americans and some others view a jester dressed in black face as "not correct" because of guilt we have about what our countries have done to people of color.

That is absolutely true.

Until very recent decades, blacks in the States (particularly, but not exclusively in our deep southern states) were treated as farm animals might be treated. From the slavery that was commonplace in the USA nearly since the birth of our nation until recent times, we are all shaking in our boots because we KNOW that, as a whole, our black citizens have been hideously discriminated against. Therefore, the very last thing we Americans want to do is remind ourselves (whites and all people of color) of the shame this nation carries.

In light of that reality, yes - it is very, very difficult for me to imagine seeing a figure dressed in black-face and not feeling sick to my stomach with remorse for my non-white brothers and sisters. Therefore, if I ever visit, I'll make sure it is not in December ; ).

Laurie
Northern California, USA

  • 143.
  • At 01:49 PM on 11 Dec 2007,
  • Ylva wrote:

I studied in the Netherlands for half a year, but come from Sweden. To all of those who dismiss Mr Mardell's comments on Black Pete as an expression of Anglo-Saxon political correctness, I would like to note that seeing Black Pete as portrayed by the Dutch was sincerely shocking also to me as a Swede and Scandinavian.

The colonia-era "Golliwog" minstrel portrayal of a Black Pete with curly hair, shoepolish and big red lips is thoroughly offensive, except to those perhaps have stopped questioning this outfit because it is "tradition".

I doubly cannot accept the arguments about Black Pete being the way it is and just "harmless fun", as I spent several years in what was then Czechoslovakia when I was a child. St Nicholas (Mikulas) on 6/12 is a beloved and long-standing tradition there, and Mikulas in this case also has a "dark" helper. This helper is usually portrayed as a little, black-clad, rascally devil who frightens the kids and passes coal to those who have been naughty. St Nicholas and his other helper, the pretty angel, are the ones passing out praise and presents.

It is therefore obvious to me that celebrating the holiday of St Nicholas, including his "dark" helper, is perfectly possible without falling back on outdated and inappropriate stereotypes.

  • 144.
  • At 03:30 PM on 11 Dec 2007,
  • Lisa Van Den Hurk wrote:

I find me it highly offensive that yet again political correctness is trying to ruin yet another age old tradition of a European country.

I myself do not live in Holland but my mum is Dutch born and bred and she has told me plenty about this tradition, both black and white people play zwarte Pete and neither find it offensive, and if, as some people say this is making Dutch people even more segregated, then why is Holland one of the best places in Europe to bring children up in, and why, whenever I visit Holland do I always see mixed race groups of friends or mixed race couples, and don’t you think that if this tradition was so offensive to black people that they would have complained so much about it that the tradition was stopped.

  • 145.
  • At 06:58 PM on 11 Dec 2007,
  • Rebecca wrote:

hello all,

And so I find myself staying in the netherlands and was typically Britishly shocked with the images of "Black Pete" upon my arrival.

After asking my Italian housemates, who have been here much longer than I have the significance of the black doll everywhere, they were happy to inform me that through their understanding Black Pete is Sinterklaas' "personal slave" commenting that even in the Anglo/ British/ American version Santa Claus always has slaves, be them dwarfs or elfs, usually confined to a freezing prison in the north pole, at least this way they agreed, we know the name of the slave and so he has more status.

Through their understanding, Pete et al. was a typically nice and dutch way to celebrate their multiculturalism.

Interesting?

As an after thought; when in Spain during the festive season I was always ( Britishly) shocked at the Spanish interpretation of Baltazar ( one of the three kings- the black one) who is always interpreted by a "white" Spanish man "blacked up" in the same way the Dutch "do Pete".

Maybe it is us who is missing a black christmas figure?

  • 146.
  • At 07:17 PM on 11 Dec 2007,
  • Rebecca wrote:

hello all,

And so I find myself staying in the netherlands and was typically Britishly shocked with the images of "Black Pete" upon my arrival.

After asking my Italian housemates, who have been here much longer than I have the significance of the black doll everywhere, they were happy to inform me that through their understanding Black Pete is Sinterklaas' "personal slave" commenting that even in the Anglo/ British/ American version Santa Claus always has slaves, be them dwarfs or elfs, usually confined to a freezing prison in the north pole, at least this way they agreed, we know the name of the slave and so he has more status.

Through their understanding, Pete et al. was a typically nice and dutch way to celebrate their multiculturalism.

Interesting?

As an after thought; when in Spain during the festive season I was always ( Britishly) shocked at the Spanish interpretation of Baltazar ( one of the three kings- the black one) who is always interpreted by a "white" Spanish man "blacked up" in the same way the Dutch "do Pete".

Maybe it is us who is missing a black christmas figure?

  • 147.
  • At 08:54 PM on 12 Dec 2007,
  • McKenzie wrote:

Hang on a minute, like I said above I'm a Brit who grew up in Belgium and Holland, so where do you think I picked my so-called PC values in the first place? A good dose of Belgian Catholicism followed by trendy liberal Dutch teachers who seemed to forever want to discuss sex and drugs with us.

Pot Kettle Zwart

  • 148.
  • At 04:44 PM on 13 Dec 2007,
  • Lieven wrote:

A lot of people on here are either ultra-defensive or present anecdotal tangents ("my mom said the black kids enjoyed it," "the kids actually like Zwarte Piet," etc.). Yet we have first evidence from some readers who aren't ethnic Europeans and they DO have a problem with it.
When I was young I was indeed scared of Zwarte Piet and like another reader mentioned would cling to the adult who was with me.
Those who want to turn this into a PC brigade question ought to be able to at least answer the root of this tradition and why it isn't offensive.
I believe it can be easily summed up why Zwarte Piet is a problem. Zwarte Piet is a caricature...black man who serves white master out of free will (anyone see slave in there). Also the idea that blacks are subservient to whites. In addition, as some people have pointed out, the Zwarte Piet character is portrayed both as mean (insert fear) and as funny and awkward (insert clown). Those are two of the most typical categories of caricatures of the "other"...be scared, or/and laugh at them, both physically and mentally. Saying something is tradition doesn't validate the very questionable portrayal of this figure. It makes me sick to the stomach when I think about it and it actually makes me ashamed to be Belgian.

  • 149.
  • At 06:29 AM on 14 Dec 2007,
  • john wrote:

I travelled to Limburg (southern Netherlands) this year.
When I came across Zwarte Piet on the streets I was shocked. The image appeared to me to be the same as the old 'Golly' image and is obviously not a person who has clambered down a chimney.
Children were looking on, wide-eyed at piet, yet happy to catch the sweets he threw into the crowd.
Maybe it is time to review this tradition and the answer is simple. Keep piet but drop the big red lips, the black curly hair and the bright costumes.

Nice post!!

  • 151.
  • At 10:51 AM on 01 Jan 2008,
  • Y Testelmans wrote:

I was born in Belgium in the 1950's. We always put our shoe out every night for a few weeks before the 6th December to receive oranges, or nuts or a chocolate. We then watched the arrival of Sinterklaas by ship from Spain on Dutch tv, which was very important for us children. Who left the treats in our shoes if Sinterklaas had not arrived yet, we never queried. Zwarte Piet was the one who threw the sweets in the air. This was again eagerly anticipated and always happened when the whole family was together. The one to be afraid of was called NICODEMUS. I don't remember what he looked like, but nobody has mentioned him yet. We got up really early on the morning of the 6th December to find all kinds of sweets, nuts, fruit and toys ready for us downstairs. We played with them until it was time for school. Happy memories, so innocent, and no rush for the latest commercial must have!

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