In the United States, Santa Claus works alone once he leaves his workshop of elves. However, in the Netherlands, the man bringing presents is called Sinterklaas, and he shows up with a servant/friend named Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete.” The name is already eyebrow-raising and once you’ve seen what he looks like, you’re sure to cringe: it’s full-on black face. How is this tradition still a thing?
The history of Zwarte Piet
It would be impossible to talk about Zwarte Piet without first explaining Saint Nicholas, who was a real person. According to some medieval art, St. Nicholas tames a devil, who was sometimes painted with very dark skin. However, in the Netherlands, no depiction of a tamed servant, devil or otherwise, is found in art or text from the 16th-19th centuries. St. Nicholas eventually became Sinterklaus, a rather harsh man who brought his judgement down upon bad children at Christmas time. As times changed, the idea of a holy man being so severe and frightening children became a bit disturbing. That enslaved devil character might have returned as Zwarte Piet and embodied some of those meaner characteristics.
However, even Zwarte Piet became nicer, making his first appearance in a children’s book in 1850. Translated as Saint Nicholas and His Servant, the book illustrated the character as a page with dark skin, large lips, curly black hair, and hoop earrings. It’s hard to not associate those features with minstrel shows from the US.
As the story goes, St. Nicholas and his servant arrive in the Netherlands from Spain on a steamboat. Saint Nicholas and His Servant was so popular, it stayed in for a hundred years and essentially created the celebration that’s so controversial today. Every year, on the second Saturday in November, people fill the streets to celebrate the arrival of St. Nicholas and Zwarte Piet, many of them dressed in the servant’s clothing with their faces blackened. A brass band usually plays, and the Piets dance alongside St. Nicholas on his white horse, offering candy to the celebrants. Parades will continue throughout different Dutch cities all the way through the month and into December. Zwarte Piet is nearly impossible to avoid.
The Netherlands didn’t seem to mind the possibly racist implications of their beloved Zwarte Piet, but other countries did. For outsiders, it certainly looks like St. Nicholas has a slave, and that slave is being depicted by white people in black face. For tourism’s sake, the Netherlands has tried adjusting Piet’s image by saying he’s not a slave or a servant, he’s just St. Nicholas’ helpful friend. In 2015, a department chain got rid of all their old Piet decorations and replaced them with versions where Piet’s skin is golden. The next year, a television network ditched the full black face and actors merely wore some soot, because Piet hangs out in chimneys.
Despite a 2018 Dutch survey where 88% said they didn’t think Zwarte Piet was racist (it’s worth noting that 80% of the country is considered “native white Dutch”), the character is changing or disappearing completely. It’s not uncommon to hear about protests and riots between those in favor of the character and those who want him gone. The Netherlands likes to believe it isn’t racist, but seems to be taking the whole “blind to race” route, which isn’t the same thing. We have to ask ourselves some important questions, like how important is tradition? Why can’t we evolve with the times?
Thankfully, most holiday traditions around the world involve a lot more cookies and candles, and a lot less blackface. Here are some of the most beautiful celebrations.