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Zwarte Piet (pronounced [ˈzʋɑrtə ˈpit], "Black Pete") is the companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas) in the folklore of the Low Countries. In its modern form, the character is commonly depicted as a blackamoor, with blackface make-up, and dressed in stylized colourful Renaissance attire, akin to Maures in European heraldry.
The character first appeared in an 1850 book by Jan Schenkman.
The Zwarte Piet character is part of the annual feast of St. Nicholas, usually celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaasavond, that is, St. Nicholas' Eve) in the Netherlands and on 6 December in Belgium, when sweets and presents are distributed to children. In other surrounding countries similar black and/or threatening characters are the companion of Saint Nicholas. For example, in Germany the character is called Knecht Ruprecht (journeyman Ruprecht), in Hungary it is called Krampusz (devilkin or imp) and in France and Wallonia the companion is called Père Fouettard. However, none of these characters is depicted as a Moor: Knecht Ruprecht and Père Fouettard are bearded white servants, (with Père Fouettard being clothed in black) while Krampusz is a horned black devil. In some parts of Germany Belsnickel is a similar figure, which is depicted as a furred figure with a blackened and weathered face (or he wears a mask with a long red tongue). In these countries the tradition of celebrating the birthday of Saint Nicholas has not merged with Christmas. The characters of Zwarte Pieten appear only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas's feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by boat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain). The tasks of the Zwarte Pieten are mostly to amuse children, and to scatter pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed (special sinterklaas candies) for those who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools, and other places.
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According to Hélène Adeline Guerber, and many others, the origin of Sinterklaas and his helpers can probably be found in the Wild Hunt of Wodan. Riding the white horse Sleipnir he flew through the air as the leader of the Wild Hunt. He was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. Those helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimney - which was just a hole in the roof at that time - to tell Wodan about the good and bad behaviour of the mortals. Due to its speculative character, however, this older 'Germanistic' theory has little support among present-day scholars, although it continues to be popular in non-scholarly sources. At the same time, it seems clear that the Saint Nicholas tradition contains a number of elements that are not ecclesiastical in origin.
In medieval iconography, Saint Nicholas is sometimes presented as taming a chained devil, who may or may not be black. Although no hint of a devil, servant, or any other human or human-like fixed companion to the Saint is found in visual and textual sources from the Netherlands from the 16th until the 19th century, Zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe, according to a long-standing theory, originally must have represented such an enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor. This chained and fire-scorched devil somehow re-emerged in the 19th-century Netherlands in the likeness of a Moor, as a servant of Saint Nicholas. A devil as a helper of the saint can still be found in the Austrian Saint Nicholas tradition, in the character of Krampus. The introduction of Zwarte Piet did coincide, by and large, with a change in the attitude of the Sinterklaas character. The latter had been quite severe towards bad children himself, and had in fact often been presented as a bogeyman when he was still a solitary character; moreover, some of the same terrifying characteristics that were later associated with his servant Zwarte Piet were often attributed to Saint Nicholas himself. The depiction of a holy man in this light was troubling to both teachers and priests. Sometime after the introduction of Zwarte Piet as Sinterklaas' servant, both characters adopted a softer character. The lyrics of older traditional Sinterklaas songs, still sung today, warn that while Sinterklaas and his assistant will leave well-behaved children presents, they will punish those who have been very naughty. For example, they will take bad children and carry these children off in a burlap sack to their homeland of Spain, where, according to legend, Sinterklaas and his helper dwell out of season. These songs and stories also warn that a child who has been only slightly naughty will not get a present, but a "roe", which is a bundle of birch twigs, implying that they could have gotten a birching instead, or they will simply receive a lump of coal instead of gifts.
In 1850, Amsterdam-based primary school teacher Jan Schenkman published the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht ("Saint Nicholas and his Servant"). This is the first time that a servant character is introduced into the Saint Nicholas narrative. The servant is depicted as a page boy or man, who appears as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors. The book also established another mythos that would become standard: the intocht or "entry" ceremony of Saint Nicholas and his servant (then still nameless) involving a steamboat. Schenkman has the two characters arrive from Spain, with no reference made to Nicholas' historical see of Myra (Lycia, modern-day Turkey). In the 1850 version of Schenkman's book, the servant is depicted in simple white clothing with red piping. In later editions, the page is shown in a much more colorful page costume reminiscent of the Spanish fashion of earlier days, looking much the same as he does at present. The book stayed in print until 1950 and has had considerable influence on the current celebration. While in Schenkman's book the servant was nameless, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm already made reference to a dialogue partner of Saint Nicholas with the name "Pieter-me-knecht" in a handwritten, unpublished text in 1850. Moreover, writing in 1884, Alberdingk Thijm remembered that in 1828, as a child, he had attended a Saint Nicholas celebration in the house of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant and consul living in Amsterdam. On this occasion Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by "Pieter me Knecht ..., a frizzy haired Negro", who, rather than a rod, wore a large basket filled with presents. In 1859, Dutch newspaper De Tijd noticed that Saint Nicholas nowadays was often accompanied by "a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less populair than the Holy Bishop himself".
In the 1891 book Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the servant is named Pieter. Until 1920 there were several books giving him other names, and in contemporaneous appearances the name and looks still varied considerably.
In the early 20th century the Civilized Standard Celebration for children, with Zwarte Piet as the standard personal servant of the saint, spread throughout the country. In the 1930s urban adults become more involved, too, and the arrival of Saint Nicholas and his Zwarte Pieten are staged, which more or less explains the shift from 6 to 5 December, as the adults would celebrate on the eve of the saint's day. The character of Zwarte Piet changed into a real friend of children. Zwarte Piet still caries a bag, but in the bag are sweets, which he throws around for all children to pick them from the floor (indoors, outdoors he just hands them out, due to issues of hygiene). Also, the number of Sinterklaas' servants multiplied and female Piets were included; this paradigm shift offered the possibility of creating several different Zwarte Piet characters, notably for television. During the televised yearly event, when Sinterklaas arrives by boat, he is often assisted by dozens of Piets, for example there's a Hoofdpiet (Head Piet) who carries the book of Sinterklaas, a Rijmpiet (Rhyme Piet) and so on.
The Dutch and Belgians now celebrate Sinterklaas (5 December for the Dutch, 6 December for the Belgians) with an exchange of gifts. These presents are given anonymously, but are often accompanied by poems, Sinterklaasgedicht, signed by Zwarte Piet or Sint, which are read aloud during Sinterklaas evening for the enjoyment of the ones assembled. The poems are often of a teasing nature.
Until the second half of the 20th century, Saint Nicholas' helper was not too bright, in line with the old colonial traditions.[clarification needed] Once immigration started from the former colonised countries, Zwarte Piet became a much more respected assistant of Saint Nicholas, inattentive but playful. Most of the Zwarte Pieten also gained significant skill in acrobatics.
According to a popular explanation that came to prominence in the later decades of the 20th century, Zwarte Piet is a Spaniard, or an Italian chimney sweep, whose blackness is due to a permanent layer of soot on his body, acquired during his many trips through the chimneys.
The role of Zwarte Piet has become part of a recurring debate in the Netherlands. The character continues to draw negative attention from international commentators and news organizations. Among others, American essayist David Sedaris has written about the tradition. Nevertheless, he continues to be popular in the Netherlands. According to a 2013 survey, 92% of the Dutch public don't perceive Zwarte Piet as racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% are opposed to altering the character's appearance.
Since the 1990s, there have been several attempts to introduce an updated version of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch public, among them replacing traditional black makeup with various other shades of colours. In 2006, the NPS replaced the black Pieten with rainbow-colored Pieten, which had accidentally shifted colour according to the storyline of the televised Sinterklaas arrival serial of that year.
Within the Netherlands and abroad there is an ongoing debate over how best to update the tradition and remove Zwarte Piet's stereotypical characteristics. The largest Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada, slated for 3 December 2011, in New Westminster, British Columbia, was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1985 following a debate over the inclusion of the character. Rather than remove Zwarte Piet, the organizers cancelled the festivities entirely because, as spokesperson Tako Slump of the organization said:
"We got a lot of replies back from our customers in the Dutch community. It became pretty clear to us that we love Sinterklaas and we can't have it without Black Peter. Those two go together."
In 2011, legislators in the former Dutch colony of Suriname stated that government-sanctioned celebrations involving Zwarte Piet were considered an insult to the "black part of Suriname's community." Efforts later began in Suriname to prevent future governmental promotions of the character. Elsewhere, four people wearing t-shirts with the words "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" were arrested during the second weekend of November 2011 at a Sinterklaas festival in Dordrecht after failing several instructions by the police to move elsewhere. Subsequent to the arrest, residents of Amsterdam complained to their mayor and requested that Zwarte Piet be removed from the city's Sinterklaas parade.
In 2013, following several allegation letters from Dutch civil rights organisations[which?] claiming that the Zwarte Piet tradition perpetuates racist stereotypes, a number of independent and special rapporteurs working under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Council wrote a letter to the Government of the Netherlands requesting an investigation into these allegations. The Dutch government responded by stating, inter alia, that the Sinterklaas celebration is a tradition for children in the Netherlands but that different parts of society interpret and perceive it in different ways. The UN later dropped the charges and assured the Dutch that their Sinterklaas traditions would not be investigated for 'racism', with Marc Jacobs, a Belgian Unesco representative, stating that the person who had signed the letter, Jamaican Verene Shepherd, had no authorisation to do so.
Also in 2013, the mayor of Amsterdam suggested that the frizzy hair and red lips could be easily changed. As a result of the ongoing controversy, the 600 actors who played Zwarte Piet in the city's annual Sinterklaas celebration on 17 November did not wear the character's traditional golden earrings. The organizing committee suggested the character's depiction could be altered further in 2014.
On the weekend of Amsterdam's Sinterklaas celebration in November 2013, several hundred people protested against the character at demonstrations throughout the city. In the weeks that followed, several smaller public and private celebrations opted to feature alternative "colored", "rainbow" or "soot swiped" Pieten, already a common sight in Sinterklaas celebrations in North America. But a news segment on the Dutch public broadcaster Nederlandse Omroep Stichting concluded the trend had not gained mainstream adoption.
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