10 things you need to know about Zwarte Piet

There is one sure way to really annoy the average Dutch person and that is to criticise the persona of Zwarte Piet. Not that we want to annoy anyone, you understand.

But we do think it pertinent to aware of the facts if you find yourself having the traditional Zwarte Piet discussion.  Here are 10 essential pieces of information to help you argue your case, which ever side you are on.

No stereotypes here

No stereotypes here

1. St Nicholas’ death on December 6 was commemorated in the Netherlands for centuries. Way back in 1427 there are records of people setting their shoes at the St Nicholas church in Utrecht in the hope of getting a gift.  The celebration was banned during the Reformation but the Dutch being the Dutch,  continued to do it anyway. Sinterklaas or Pakjesavond is now celebrated on the eve of his death – or name day – December 5.

Not a Zwarte Piet here

Not a Zwarte Piet here

The Feast of St Nicholas (1665-68) by Jan Steen shows how it was done. The boy is crying because he got a switch in his shoe, the girl looks smug because she got a doll. Yep, in the good old days, Sinterklaas punished you were bad and gave you a gift if you were good. Way back then Sinterklaas – who worked alone in the Netherlands, without a servant or page – was not the benevolent chap he is today.

2. Sinterklaas was first given a black page in a book called Sinterklaas and his Servant published in 1850 by school teacher Jan Schenkman. Schenkman also established that Sinterklaas, somewhat bizarrely for a Turkish bishop, lived in Spain and came to the Netherlands by steam ship.

Slaves on horseback?

Slaves on horseback?

3. Some people think Schenkman may have been influenced by Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a very popular book at the time in which a Knight Templar returns from Palestine with two black Saracen servants. Others say he could have been influenced by characters in  Heinrich Hoffmann‘s  Struwwelpeter. Art historian Michiel Kruijt points to the fashion for having black child slaves in the 17th century.

4.  Parallels have also been drawn between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet and Odin with his two black ravens Hugginn and Muninn who listened at chimneys to find out what had been going on.

A compatriot of Zwarte Piet? Surely not

A compatriot of Zwarte Piet? Surely not

Others see Zwarte Piet in a European tradition of dodgy companions for St Nicholas, such as Ruprecht in Germany, the terrible Krampus in the Alpine region or even the devil… Zwarte Piet a black devil, surely not?

5.  The servant was given the name Pieter in the 1891 Schenkman book Het Feest van Sinterklaas.

6. The first formal Sinterklaas intocht or arrival procession took place in Amsterdam in 1934 or 1935 (the sources are as fuzzy about the dates as the pictures).

These people are not white Zwarte Piets

These people are not white Zwarte Piets

Sinterklaas was accompanied by a lot of white heralds in outfits very similar to today’s Zwarte Piet. And,  according to Sinterklaas expert Marie-Jose Wouters, the procession also included six Surinamese sailors whose boat was in the harbour at the time. They are, alas, not on the film. But it could just be that the very first Zwarte Piets in the procession were Surinamese.

7. The Piet character went on to become an established part of the performance with his curly afro hair, blackface make-up, thick red lips and gold earrings.

No offensive stereotypes here

No offensive stereotypes here

Since the 1970s, the tradition has changed and more Piets have been added to the line-up – so you have the Head Piet and the Rhyme Piet, the Cool Piet (in Adidas stripes) and the whatever else you like Piet. Piet is no longer a total buffoon talking in a Surinamese accent and he no longer has a switch to hit naughty children or stuffs them in a sack to take them back to Spain. He is the children’s friend and gives them sweets and pepernoten. Piets have also become cleverer as the good Sint has become more forgetful.

8. Zwarte Piet is not black because he is an African slave or a servant or the devil or a raven, but because he has been up and down so many chimneys delivering presents. His clothes may be clean and sparkling but that’s by the by. After all, there is that charming little song which children sing at this time of year: ‘Don’t worry child, I’m your friend and even though I am as black as soot, I mean well’.

Sint and Piet are the stars of a horror film by Dick Maas

Not suitable for small children: Sint and Piet are the stars of a horror film by Dick Maas

9. A survey by Amsterdam city council last year found 39% of people of Surinamese origin don’t like the idea of Zwarte Piet being at their children’s school, nor do 28% of Ghanians, 24% of Antilleans and 17% of English speakers. However the survey found no people of Moroccan origin thought Zwarte Piet was an issue. A survey in October 2013 for television programme EditieNL found 96% of the Dutch think the Zwarte Piet character should stay.

10.  Zwartepieten is also a card game similar to Black Maria in Britain. The Jack of Spades is the Zwarte Piet and if you are left with him at the end of the game, you are the loser. A this point, we will refrain from making nasty jokes about spades.

Again, not a white Zwarte Piet

A white Zwarte Piet?

The saying ‘Iemand de zwartepiet toespelen‘  – giving someone the Zwarte Piet – means passing the buck – or blame.  Another positive stereotype there then.

10 thoughts on “10 things you need to know about Zwarte Piet

  1. douryeh

    Reblogged this on Daily Observation and commented:
    Thanks, largely true… I’m not sure what to think. Traditions change over time. I predict Zwarte Piet will have to tolerate Colored and White Piets at his side, because in the end no one likes a celebration where certain people are left in sadness. It’s awkward. @D

  2. Cindy Newell

    Correction, Sint Nicolas died on December 6 and we celebrate the day before as evening celebration of Gifts and pranks, but main focus is be together with Family and be tHankfull,. this is not his birtday that was written in the beginning but his death day as a dedicate memorial to a man that believes every child even the poorest one should be taken care of.

  3. bre athe

    ”Santa Claus”
    ”Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and simply “Santa”, is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children on the night before Christmas, December 24. However in some European countries children receive their presents on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6.” (wikipedia)

    …Just for the story, true Sint Nicholas was not a Turkish bishop.Saint Nicholas is a very important holy figure of the christian orthodox church. He lived during 15 March 270 – 6 December 343 and was a greek bishop in the eastern part of Byzantine empire (part of modern Turkey about 1000 years later..). He is also honoured in other christian churches around the world, as in catholicism, agglianicism etc. As for the orthodox church, especially for Greeks, but also Italians S. Nicholas is honoured as the protector of the sailors. His life was full of humanitarian work.

    So this is the original figure that ”Santa Claus” it is about. The rest as socks, red appearance, Zwarte Piets, gifts, etc are stuff which either came from the mixing of pre-christian mythology as the god Odin, who was associated with the Germanic pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, either as a literature work which finally became tradition for example
    ”…This image (santa claus in red, bringing gifts etc) became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast.[2][3][4] This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children’s books and films…”

    So, we have a real person who centuries later had been connected with the whole Christmas or pre-Christmas period to finally evolved in the famous Santa-Claus figure, SInterklaas, Papa Noel etc among the christian countries. Each country mixed up some traditions, invented some others as the elves and the zwarte pietes and goes on. The connection may happened because the original Saint Nicholas was into humanitarian work.

    About the Zwarte Pete now, it’s more than obvious how this figure is connected to the slavery history. As I said, each country added to the whole Santa Claus paraphilology details inspired from their very own traditions or from books who added new details to the ”story”.

    Sinterklaas tradition is older that Zwarte Piet, and the connection happened for the first time only in 1850, like this article states, in the book ”Sinterklaas and his servant”. So that year the Dutchies actually evolved their centuries tradition, following the imaginative narration of a book. I dont’ see why they cannot for one more time, not to delete but to evolve their tradition, following the voice of the modern times. I have a feeling that the voices against the blacking-up faces every year will multiply. But I think the final decision is for the people who actually live in this country.

  4. expatsincebirth

    Thanks for this post. Some have already pointed out a few things and I agree with them. The connection between Zwarte Piet and slavery history is also pretty sure (see: http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2686/Binnenland/article/detail/3531694/2013/10/23/Geen-twijfel-Zwarte-Piet-stamt-af-van-kindslaven.dhtml#.Umd_Q_dUD64.facebook). And Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are only attested since mid 19th Century. – About the card game, there is also the german game “Schwarzer Peter” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_maid_%28card_game%29).

  5. HollandTraveler Esther

    My Zwarte Piet used to have an Amsterdam accent, and all I was told is that he was in charge of taking care of Sint in his old age. Sint Nicolaas saved a couple of kids after all from a horrible fate.
    Next I was told “Sinterklaas doesn’t exist” And now he exists as cultural bad habit..
    Maybe it is time to just start thinking for ourselves.. I think Sint is not supposed be all pale. Not possible when you spend all your time in Spain, or Greece or Turkey.
    My teacher was told he looks like Sint. He liked it?! And just laughed!?
    Being yourself is not an insult. I think it is an insult that Sint was made out to be good guy with slaves. He is a ‘kindervriend’, friend of little kids. Next they accuse him of child abuse.. Let’s go after the real bad guys and witches with a B. Just name a country and you will find people white, black or in between doing rotten stuff to other people. It can be your neighbor or a far away facebook friend. Let stop using groups; religions, countries or whatever as scapegoats.
    Speak to the perp on an individual level (nice psycho mumbo jumbo, but it is true)
    Interesting post 🙂

  6. Pingback: St Nicholas Day — December 6 | Churchmouse Campanologist

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