Zwarte Piet

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"Black Peter" redirects here. For other uses, see Black Peter (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Piet Zwart.
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet (pronounced [ˈzʋɑrtə ˈpit]; English: Black Peter) is the companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas) in the folklore of the Low Countries. The character first appeared in an 1850 book by Jan Schenkman. In his modern form, the character is commonly depicted as a blackamoor. Actors portraying Zwarte Piet typically put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. As such, the character has become the subject of much controversy in recent years, especially in the Netherlands.[1][2]


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.



Strooigoed and kruidnoten mix for scattering

According to Hélène Adeline Guerber, and many others,[3][4] 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.[5] 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.[6][7] 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.[8]

Illustration from Jan Schenkman's book

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,[9] Zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe, according to a long-standing theory,[10] 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.[11] 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;[12] moreover, some of the same terrifying characteristics that were later associated with his servant Zwarte Piet were often attributed to Saint Nicholas himself.[13] 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.[14] 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) male servant, who appears as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors. The book also established another mythos that would become standard: the intocht or "entry" ceremony of Saint Nicholas and his servant (then still nameless) involving a steamboat. Schenkman has the two characters arrive from Spain, with no reference made to Nicholas' historical see of Myra (Lycia, modern-day Turkey). In the 1850 version of Schenkman's book, the servant is depicted in simple white clothing with red piping. 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.[15] 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 popular than the Holy Bishop himself".[16][17]

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.

20th century[edit]

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.[18] 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.[19][20]


Zwarte Piet in his stereotypical appearance: Afro, blackface, red lips, Renaissance style Page uniform

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.[1][2] Among others, American essayist David Sedaris has written about the tradition.[21] Nevertheless, the character 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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[24]

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:[25]

"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."[26] 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.[27][28] Subsequent to the arrest, residents of Amsterdam complained to their mayor and requested that Zwarte Piet be removed from the city's Sinterklaas parade.[29]

Demonstrators at an anti-Zwarte Piet protest in Amsterdam in November 2013

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.[30][31] 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.[32] 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.[33]

Also in 2013, the mayor of Amsterdam suggested that the frizzy hair and red lips could be easily changed.[34] 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.[35] The organizing committee suggested the character's depiction could be altered further in 2014.[36]

On the weekend of Amsterdam's Sinterklaas celebration in November 2013, several hundred people protested against the character at demonstrations throughout the city.[37] In the weeks that followed, several smaller public[38] and private[39] celebrations opted to feature alternative "colored", "rainbow" or "soot swiped" Pieten. But a news segment on the Dutch public broadcaster Nederlandse Omroep Stichting concluded the trend had not gained mainstream adoption.[40]

In 2014 Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a longtime defender of the tradition, stated after fielding a question from journalist Kevin P. Roberson that "It is an old Dutch children's tradition,... My friends in the Antilles are very happy when it is Sinterklaas because they don't have to paint their faces. When I play Zwarte Piet, I am, for days, trying to get the stuff off my face."[41][42] His statements were criticized by several members of the press,[43] people in the Antilles as well as anti-Zwarte Piet activists.[44]

In early 2014, a coalition formed by the Dutch Folk Culture Centre began informal talks to discuss the future of Zwarte Piet and whether or not the character should be modified or phased out entirely.[45] Led by the centre’s director, Ineke Strouten, several groups and individuals were consulted for their input, among them teachers, festival organizers, television producers, pro-Piet advocates and Quincy Gario, the co-founder of the ongoing "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" campaign.[46] A court hearing in Amsterdam concerning the character was scheduled for 22 May 2014.[47] The court's verdict, rendered on 2 July, contended that Zwarte Piet is, indeed, offensive due to the character's continued role in perpetuating negative stereotypes of black people.[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Emma Thomas (24 October 2013). "Outrage in Netherlands over calls to abolish 'Black Pete' clowns which march in Christmas parade dressed in blackface". Daily Mail. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Felicity Morse. "Zwarte Piet: Opposition Grows To 'Racist Black Pete' Dutch Tradition". UK: Huffington Post. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  3. ^ Door Ernie Ramaker (3 December 2011). "Wat heeft Sinterklaas met Germaanse mythologie te maken?" (in Dutch). Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  4. ^ "American Christmas Origins". Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  5. ^ Hélène Adeline Guerber (d. 1929). "huginn and muninn "Myths of the Norsemen" from". Retrieved 26 November 2012. 
  6. ^ Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in Dutch). Retrieved 29 November 2007.  Almekinders, Jaap (2005). "Wodan en de oorsprong van het Sinterklaasfeest (Wodan and the origin of Saint Nicolas' festivity)" (in Dutch). Retrieved 28 November 2011.  Christina, Carlijn (2006). "St. Nicolas and the tradition of celebrating his birthday". Retrieved 28 November 2011. [unreliable source?]
  7. ^ "Artikel: sinterklaas and Germanic mythology" (in Dutch). 3 December 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2012. 
  8. ^ Meertens Instituut, Piet en Sint - veelgestelde vragen (retrieved from on 19 November 2013); J. de Jager, Rituelen & Tradities: Sinterklaas (retrieved from on 19 November 2013). According to E. Boer-Dirks, "Nieuw licht op Zwarte Piet. Een kunsthistorisch antwoord op de vraag naar de herkomst", Volkskundig Bulletin, 19 (1993), pp. 1-35, this tradition is derived from German folkloristic research of the first decades of the 19th century (p. 2). This happened relatively early; already in 1863, the Dutch lexicographer Eelco Verwijs is found comparing the feast of St. Nicholas with Germanic pagan traditions and noting that the appearance of Wodan and Eckart in December reminds him of that of St. Nicholas and "his servant Ruprecht" (De christelijke feesten: Eene bijdrage tot de kennis der germaansche mythologie. I. Sinterklaas (The Hague, 1863), p. 40). An older reference to a possible pagan origin of a "St. Nicholas and his black servant with chains", apparently in a Dutch setting, is found in L. Ph. C. van den Bergh, Nederlandsche volksoverleveringen en godenleer (Utrecht, 1836), p. 74 (" verschijning van den zwarten knecht van St. Nikolaas met kettingen, die de kinders verschrikt, ... acht ik van heidenschen oorsprong").
  9. ^ E. Boer-Dirks, "Nieuw licht op Zwarte Piet. Een kunsthistorisch antwoord op de vraag naar de herkomst", Volkskundig Bulletin, 19 (1993), pp. 1-35; 2-4, 10.
  10. ^ First proposed by Karl Meisen in Nikolauskult und Nikolausbrauch im Abendlande: Eine kultgeographisch-volkskundliche Untersuchung (Düsseldorf, 1931).
  11. ^ "Jan Schenkman" (in Dutch). Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  12. ^ J. de Jager, Rituelen & Tradities: Sinterklaas (retrieved from on 19 November 2013).
  13. ^ For example: J. ter Gouw, in De volksvermaken (Haarlem, 1871), p. 256, describes an ancient tradition of "Zwarte Klazen" in Amsterdam; A.B. van Meerten, in Reisje door het Koningrijk der Nederlanden en het Groot-Hertogdom Luxemburg, voor kinderen (Amsterdam, 1827), describes a (fictional?) St. Nicholas celebration in which the Saint appears "with a black face ... with a whip and a rod in his hands"; and in De Nederlandsche Kindervriend, in gedichtjes voor de welopgevoede jeugd (Amsterdam, 1829), pp. 72-74, "Sinterklaas" is referred to as "a black man" who was said to descend down the chimney "with a great noise of chains" which he used for fettering naughty children. Respondents to a 1943 survey of the Meertens Instituut wrote that they had known Saint Nicholas "as a bishop or as a black man with a chain on his foot" and "in the shape of a black man. The bishop was unknown in my youth" (J. Helsloot, "Sich verkleiden in der niederländischen Festkultur. Der Fall des 'Zwarte Piet'", Rheinisches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde 26 (2005/2006), pp. 137-153; 141).
  14. ^ Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in Dutch). Retrieved 29 November 2007. 
  15. ^ ""St Nicholas en zijn knecht" by Jan Schenkman". 12 October 2010. Retrieved 26 November 2012. 
  16. ^ J. Helsloot, "De oudst bekende naam van Zwarte Piet: Pieter-mê-knecht (1850)", Digitale nieuwsbrief Meertens Instituut, November 2011. Retrieved from
  17. ^ However, an article in an Amsterdam-based magazine of 1833 makes humorous reference to a "Pietermanknecht", who is said to punish those who sneaked out of their houses to attend that year's St. Nicholas celebrations: "Zij echter, die ter sluik op het St. Nicolaas feest hadden rondgewandeld, vonden, te huis komende, de Pietermanknecht te hunnent; de zoons in hunne vaders, de mannen in hunnen vrouwen en de dienstmeisjes in hunne gebiedsters." ("St. Nikolaas", De Arke Noach's, 7, 10 (December 1833), pp. 294-299; p. 296)
  18. ^ "Oorsprong van de feesten. Wie is Sint Niklaas?" (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 3 May 2009. Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  19. ^ Cf. J. de Jager, Rituelen & Tradities: Sinterklaas (retrieved from on 21 November 2013), and J. Helsloot, "De strijd om Zwarte Piet", in: I. Hoving, H. Dibbits & M. Schrover (eds.), Cultuur en migratie in Nederland. Veranderingen van het alledaagse, 1950-2000 (Den Haag, 2005), pp. 249-270; 265.
  20. ^ Bergeron, Lianne (21 November 2013). "Christmas in the Netherlands: a Canadian meets Zwarte Piet". The Magazine. Retrieved 27 November 2013. 
  21. ^ "David Sedaris Reads Six to Eight Black Men". Gawker. Retrieved 30 October 2012. 
  22. ^ "VN wil einde Sinterklaasfeest - Binnenland | Het laatste nieuws uit Nederland leest u op [binnenland]". 22 October 2013. Retrieved 19 December 2013. 
  23. ^ "Dutch Question St. Nick's Sidekick". Washington Post. 2 December 1999. Retrieved 22 June 2012. 
  24. ^ (Dutch) Piet weer zwart ("Pete black again"), De Telegraaf, 15 November 2007. Accessed online 17 February 2008.
  25. ^ "New Westminster Sinterklaas festival Cancelled". Royal City Record. 29 November 2011. 
  26. ^ "RACIST TRADITION: Legislators say Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas at Christmas is racist". Caribbean News Agency (CANA). 24 December 2011. Retrieved 24 December 2011. 
  27. ^ "Anti-Zwarte Piet activists arrests prompts new debate". Dutch 17 November 2011. Archived from the original on 10 March 2012. 
  28. ^ "Quotidian. Dutch Journal for the Study of Everyday Life". February 2012. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  29. ^ Stay informed today and every day (2 November 2013). "Race relations in the Netherlands: Is Zwarte Piet racism?". The Economist. Retrieved 5 January 2014. 
  30. ^ Carolien Roelants:. "Verenigde Naties doen onderzoek naar ‘domkop en knecht’ Zwarte Piet" (in Dutch). Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  31. ^ "De brief van de VN over Zwarte Piet". Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  32. ^ "Het Nederlandse antwoord op de VN-brief". Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  33. ^ [The Daily Telegraph, UN drops Black Pete 'racism' charge against the Dutch,]
  34. ^ (Dutch)[1], at5, 18 October 2013. Accessed online 27 October 2013
  35. ^ "Zwarte Piet loses his gold earrings". Dutch News. 6 November 2013. Retrieved 7 November 2013. 
  36. ^ "Amsterdamse Zwarte Piet Mag Andere Kleur Lippenstift". NU. 8 November 2013. Retrieved 8 November 2013. 
  37. ^ "Where St. Nicholas Has His Black Petes Charges of Racism Follow". The New York Times. 17 November 2013. Retrieved 17 November 2013. 
  38. ^ "Twitter fotoselectie (bron 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8) van de". 23 November 2013. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  39. ^ "Terugblik op 5 december 2013: Pieten in alle". 8 December 2013. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  40. ^ "Hoor wie klopt daar kinderen? - NOS Nieuws". Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  41. ^
  42. ^ "Dutch PM's Antillean friends like Zwarte Piet, 'don't have to paint faces'". Dutch News. 23 March 2014. Retrieved 25 March 2014. 
  43. ^ "'Ik dacht aan Obama en bad dat dat van die schmink hem niet zou bereiken'". Volkskrant. 24 March 2014. Retrieved 25 March 2014. 
  44. ^ "Rutte criticised for Black Pete remark". 26 March 2014. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  45. ^ "Secret Talks Underway Over Future of Zwarte Piet". Dutch News. 28 March 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  46. ^ "'Geheim Overleg Over Toekomst Zwarte Piet'". AD. 28 March 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  47. ^ "'Zwarte Piet court case set for May 22'". Dutch News. 7 April 2014. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  48. ^ "'Court rules Netherlands' Black Pete offensive'". Aljazeera. 4 July 2014. Retrieved 4 July 2014. 

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