Zwarte Piet is a controversial character – whether you believe him to be racist or not, in this article we will be taking a look instead at Zwarte Piets’ history, where did he come from, and who exactly is he.
Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is the companion of Sinterklaas (St.Nicholas) primarily in the folklore of The Netherlands. People of The Netherlands (and other lowland countries) will dress up as Zwarte Piet during the festivities of Sinterklaas, which falls on the evening of December 5 and during the day of December 6. During the period leading up to this date, Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten will visit various towns, cities, schools and other public places to see the local children and to hand out various treats.
The Origins of Zwarte Piet.
Throughout my research, the earliest I have managed to find a character that represents the legend of Zwarte Piet is of two ravens. According to the historian, Hélène Adeline Guerber the first representations are linked back to German Mythology and Odin. Odin was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn who would listen at the top of chimneys, to tell Odin about the mortals good or bad behaviour.
Odin and his flying white horse, had somehow throughout the ages evolved to St.Nicholas and then to Sinterklaas according to Arthuriana,
Whilst Sinterklaas clearly derives from St Nicholas and his feast-day of the 6 December, he differs from the earlier portraits of St Nicholas in a number of ways, not least in his flying white horse. These differences are often explained as a result of the legends of St Nicholas being fused in the medieval period with those of the former pagan god Wodan (the Norse Odin, who possessed a flying horse named Sleipnir)
However, this origin story is still a hot topic and highly debated.
The ever-evolving Zwarte Piet.
Despite the research into Odin and his two black ravens, it is actually very hard to find writings or paintings of Sinterklaas with black helpers before and during the Reformation. The Reformation was a time of religious violence and persecution by the established Catholic Church. Efforts to form a Reformed church in the southern provinces stemmed from a secret meeting of Protestant leaders at Antwerp in 1566, and despite Spanish repression, many nobles joined the Protestant movement. Because Sinterklaas is Catholic, he and his image were banned and went underground. This means that finding any solid facts of Sinterklaas having black helpers or not during this time period, is rather hard.
In popular belief, the first publication of Zwarte Piet was in a children’s book published by Jan Schenkman in 1850. However, a newspaper article in the De Amsterdammer, written by Alberdingk Thijm in 1884, recalling a childhood memory in 1828 said;
The door opened and the child-loving Bishop, in person, with a choor hood [choir-hood], with a long white beard and a miter, entered the room. “Pieter me servant” was in his retinue, a frizzy negro, who, with the Arata family, did not wear a “gard” under his arm, but, on the contrary, a large hive, where all kinds of elegant prezentjens were stacked.
If his memory is correct, then this suggests that the character of Zwarte Piet had been around for some time before it was popularised by Jan Schenkman.
Jan Schenkman, Saint Nicholas and his Servant.
Jan Schenkman was a Dutch school teacher who wrote and published a book called, Saint Nicholas and his servant in 1850. In this book, we see some of the first depictions of Zwarte Piet since the Reformation.
The story describes how St Nicholas visits a Dutch town, rewarding the good children and punishing the bad children. In this book, the illustrations of Zwarte Piet is represented as a Moor from Spain, carrying St. Nicholas’ heavy loads, wrapping up all the presents and punishing naughty children, by hitting them with a Switch and kidnapping them in a bag to take back with him to Spain. Zwarte Piet isn’t a pleasant character in this 1850 version of the story.
Mieke Bal, a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam speaks of her childhood memories of Zwarte Piet in this interview;
What I remember vividly is the sentiment of being scared. What if suddenly Zwarte Piet comes out of the chimney when I am there alone! Terrifying. And the terror of young children who doesn’t feel safe is quite a powerful emotion. That really stays with you.
When Schenkman wrote his children book, slavery was still practised in the Dutch colonies. Slavery was abolished in 1863. However, slaves were not free for another 10 years.
Public opposition to Zwarte Piet has been building since the 1970s. Suriname won its independence from the Netherlands is 1975 and almost a third of the population moved to the Netherlands to retain their Dutch citizenship. A lot of people were of African ancestry. This demographic change made modifications to the way people talked and felt about Zwarte Piet. There are various groups who oppose Zwarte Piet and various groups who don’t want Zwarte Piet to be changed till this day.
Zwarte Piet and Black soot.
Recently, Zwarte Piet has been described as not being a black slave, but rather his appearance is due to soot from the chimneys’, which is so thick from his countless trips down them that his skin is now permanently black. Through my research, I cannot find anything that actually suggests this to be true or a part of traditions. However, according to enar-eu.org the soot conception started when Suriname migrants arrived in the Netherlands;
Black Pete was usually considered the black servant of Sinterklaas, but the story was ‘modernised’ once immigrants from Suriname and the Dutch Carribean began to arrive in the Netherlands. You can however still hear the origins of Zwarte Piet in the traditional nursery rhymes that describe Zwarte Piet as ‘black as soot’ rather than ‘black with soot’.
According to the Art Historian, Elmer Kolfin;
At the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese and Spaniards in Antwerp introduced the fashion to have a negerpage,’ he says. ‘After the fall of Antwerp, that fashion was taken to the North.’ This can be seen, for example, in a painting made by Eglon van der Neer in 1680. A lady with a letter in her hands is flanked by a white servant and a young black man. Another example: on an engraving from 1700 by an unknown artist, a ‘swarte Moor’ washes the feet of De min sieke maegt.
Zwarte Piet is an interesting and rather controversial topic to research and write about. There are plenty of myths and misconceptions about the origins and the appearance of Zwarte Piet. But dig through the noise, the history of Zwarte Piet is full of wonder and atrocities. Is the story of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet related to Odin and his two ravens? There is a strong suggestion of a Pagan origin of Sinterklaas himself especially with Odin and his white horse but not necessarily of the Zwarte Pieten, we have today. Throughout time these stories and legends intertwine and as cultures cross paths, stories evolve and are rather muddy. From researching the appearance of Zwarte Piet, to me, I find the slave connection the strongest. Looking at the facts, early illustrations of Zwarte Piet and mentioning’s of Zwarte Piet are all during the time when the Dutch Colonies had black slaves and that writings describe Zwarte Piet as a servant or helper.
Despite this, each year, Sinterklaas and his Pieten bring so much joy to the children of the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet is a character that has evolved from being a scary, mean character that would punish you, into a character that is adored by the children and brings joy and happiness.
Does the appearance of Zwarte Piet need to evolve? What do you think?