|A depiction of Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas from 1906.|
|Also Known As||Ansipan, Assepan, Assiepan, Hans Moef, Nicodemus, Pieter-mê-knecht, Rabbadoelie, Sabbas, Sjaak Sjoor, Trappadoeli|
|Natural Habitat||Spain, The Netherlands|
According to Dutch folklore, Sint Nicolaas or Sinterklaas is said to be a saint from Spain. He comes to the Netherlands by boat each year and celebrates his birthday on December 5th, by giving away presents to obedient children. Bad children however, would be punished, and were sometimes taken to Spain, never to return to their families. The many helpers that accompany Sinterklaas are known as Zwarte Pieten (translation: Black Petes). Old and forgotten names for them were Pieter-mê-knecht, Trappadoeli, Rabbadoelie, Assiepan, Assepan, Ansipan, Hans Moef, Sjaak Sjoor, Sabbas or Nicodemus. It is entirely possible the helper's name was derived from the German "Schwarze Peter."
While Sinterklaas is a Dutch celebration, it's lore isn't restricted to the Netherlands alone. These Dutch traditions are based on the legend of saint Nicholas of Myra (270 - 343 AD), which spawned many derivations across Europe. Along with those derivations came a set of different helpers; sometimes the saint was accompanied by angels, but demonic figures were more common. Sometimes he had both, other times he worked alone. Before the late 1700's, Sinterklaas was known to work alone in the Netherlands, but it wasn't always that way. It is entirely possible the holy man had demonic helpers alongside of him long before that.Although a resemblance with the German Ruprecht sounds quite likely too.
Black Petes are usually white people dressed up in a jacket and knickerbockers that match, with a maillot underneath. Their lips are red and the rest of their face black. They wear big earrings, gloves, a barret with feathers and a frizzly wig (generally reminiscent of blackface).
It is rumored this black servant known as "Zwarte Piet" came into play at the end of the 18th century. Sources from 1884 speak of a memory from 1828, where saint Nicolas appeared with a black man. Many other appearances were introduced in the 19th century (often involving white faces), but none of them became very popular. The nationally embraced (for lack of a better word) identity of Zwarte Piet however, first showed up in a picture book from 1850, written by school teacher Jan Schenkman. Before that time, saint Nicolaas was a lone Child Terror whose popularity was slowly fading. Presumably it was Jan Schenkman's goal to turn the stern Sinterklaas into a more child-friendly figure, by having his servant do the punishing.
Black Pete's Job
In the beginning, there was only one fearsome helper by the name of Black Pete. Clearly not as high in regard, he had no horse - unlike Sinterklaas - and was overal portrayed as an unintelligent black man whose job it was to scare children into obedience. Children who had been good would be awarded with sweets and presents. Those who had been naughty would be given salt, if they were lucky. Sinterklaas and his helper didn't shy away from giving naughty children a spanking, right in front of their parents. Black Pete always brough a bundle of willow twigs especially for this occasion. The Jute bag they brough with them had multiple purposes as well. Besides using it as a means to transport presents, they have also been used to kidnap children back to Spain. Supposedly these children were then trained to become Black Petes themselves. A lot has changed since then. Sinterklaas has a lot more helpers now. Black Pete has lost his speech impediment, and is a lot more friendly towards children. While Black Pete still has a racist appearance, he's become a lot smarter and even manages the festivities without the help of Sinterklaas.
Besides being a Child Terror, Black Pete has been known to investigate children on their behavior and report this back to Sinterklaas, who'd make note of this in a book he carries along with him. Black Pete also entered houses by crawling through their chimneys (many assume this is the reason why they are black), where he left presents inside the shoes of children. This tradition was derived from one of the legends told about saint Nicholas of Myra, who left gold coins in the shoes of those too poor to provide a reasonable Dowry.
Debate over Zwarte Piet's appearance
Black Pete's facial appearance is said to BE similar to that of a blackface (a theatrical make-up popular in 20th century minstrel show to make a caricature of black person) and has become a topic of discussion for over 50 years. Most modern Dutch civilians still firmly hold on to their traditions, and argue that they don't mean to offend anyone and that Black Pete is not a racist icon.
The most commonly argued over in the debate is Jan Schenkman's Zwarte Piet. Being the earliest known source having the demeanor of Sinterklaas's current assistant, it was also written in the time when slavery was not yet outlawed in the Netherlands furthering the controversy in the debate. However there is evidence pointing in the direction that Zwarte Piete may have never been a symbol of slavery and racism to begin with, especially when Schenkman himself was a prominent member of a progressive movement fighting for the abolition of slavery in the Nederlands. Another problem is that the Piet in Schenman's book has no chain on his leg unlike his medieval versions. Some have also argued that Black Pete was based on characters in Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" (1819/1820). The servants described in Walter Scott's historical fiction were dark-skinned people who were enslaved by the middle-eastern Saracen.  But slaves or not, these dark-skinned characters were very trust-worthy servants, and seem to be similar to the black men in Jan Schenkman's imagery. Whether there is a connection remains unimportant to the debate at hand, especially since both works are fiction. Other sources have showed us that it was a very common garment for black people to wear during that time.
Songs however do seem to point out some qualities of Zwarte Piet that appear to be racist. One song that is used as an example is: "Ookal ben ik zwart als roet, ik meen het toch goed." This translates to "Even though I'm black as soot, my intentions are good." Another song suggests that Black Pete may have been originally enslaved: "Piet zijn knecht zo zwart als roet, met een ketting aan zijn voet," which means "Pete his servant black as soot, with a cuff around his foot." Early christian traditions depicted Saint Nicholas with an overcome, enslaved devil or black-skinned creature. This was long before the 18th century, when Black Pete first entered the scene. As a result, this is explanation seems possible but unlikely, especially since Black Pete doesn't look anything to resemble a demonic figure despite being his origins.
The first known Sinterklaas oppositions started back in the 1960's. Remarkably enough, it was a group of Caucasian citizens who pleaded for "White Petes" or a similar color-friendly approach to continue the tradition. While nothing changed about the colors, the festivities became more child-friendly. Sinterklaas promised to stop punishing any more children, and symbolically got rid of his bag and his bundle made of willow twigs. Towards the 1980's, black residents of the Netherlands became more outspoken about their unpleasant Sinterklaas experiences. From the 1990's onward, this issue turned into a social experiment where little things were changed about the celebration. This happened on a very small scale. Some would try different colors of facepaint, others would opt for no face paint at all and again other would celebrate without having any helpers. Albeit with a black Sinterklaas, they never questioned the dubious nature and still continue to celebrate it to this day. Even songs (which include racial provocations) are not being questioned about their meaning.
Many Dutch, however, find the resulting changes an attack and insult on their traditions with the assault on Zwarte Piet. They believe that the sole purpose of these debates is not to gain understanding but to bring in foreign politics, cause division, and to get rid of Zwarte Piet. Others have argued that though there is nothing inherently racist about Piet, it is better to change his appearance to look more culturally friendly.
On 2013, heavy discussions led to the introduction of colored Petes on a national scale. Whether this will ever catch on is still uncertain, as too many people oppose the idea. As a result, many of the oldest song lyrics have been edited as well. The debate over Zwarte Piet is racism, however, is far from over.