[Spoiler alert: Not recommended reading for those who believe in Santa Claus.]

Each year in the Netherlands during the Christmas season, the tone around the debate on whether Zwarte Piet (‘Black Peter’) is a form of racism gets darker. This year, the discourse was further inflamed by the rather violent arrest of ten protesters with ‘Black Peter is Racism’ t-shirts and the news that the Dutch-Canadian community in Vancouver decided to no longer allow Black Peters in their annual Sinterklaas (St Nicolas) procession. Meanwhile many of the Dutch-Dutch just get increasingly defensive as they treat such talk as a threat against their culture.

For the outsider, it remains a curious tradition: countless Dutch adults putting on black face, smearing on red, red lipstick, popping on a wig of kinky hair and adorning their ears with large golden hoops – and doing all this without any sense of malice. Then they hit the streets like a pack of highly caffeinated Al Jolsons to help St. Nick distribute sweets to children.  Years ago, a visiting friend and I came across such a posse. I was long used to it, but my friend’s jaw hit the ground in disbelief – and this is a man who has witnessed much weirdness worldwide. ‘What is this minstrel madness?!?’ he asked flabbergasted. (Not long after while in Russia our roles were reversed in a strange and convoluted way when we were waiting at a backwoods train station and some skinheads came to confront my friend about the colour of his skin. He stayed cool and dealt with the situation. I just stood there. Totally flabbergasted.)

Local Dutch cultural history only goes so far in giving my friend a reasonable explanation behind the Black Peter tradition. Once upon a pagan time, this was slaughter season when meat was both stored for the long winter and sacrificed to Odin – the Germanic God of War, Sea and Hunt. It became a celebration of life and done, one assumes, with lots of blood and bonking. So when the Church came to town to wimpify the whole process, they decided the party should be rebranded around Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children and whose birthday conveniently fell on 6 December.

The Dutch were forced to repress their natural urges for communal butchery by aggressively baking huge mounds of animal-shaped cookies and chewing on marrow-textured marzipan. Later Sinterklaas mutated further by going to America with the settlers, eventually getting drawled out to become Santa Claus and having his special day shifted to 25 December to compensate for Jesus’s failing of character when it came to the spirit of gross revenue. Then in 1931, that darkest of beverages, Coca Cola, produced an advertising campaign that gave Santa his current look.

1093_wx8f5enf2crMeanwhile here in the Old World, St Nick with his white beard, bishop’s robes and ridged staff remains every Dutch kid’s favourite uncle, playing the good cop by controlling the distribution of sweets. Meanwhile, his assisting and equally beloved bad cop Black Peters represent the threat to the naughty kids. The blackened faces are explained away as resulting from Black Peter’s assigned job of delivering the sweets to the awaiting shoes via that dirtiest of orifices, the chimney. (But of course this does not explain Black Peter’s exaggerated lips, kinky hair, golden-hooped earrings and, often enough, Surinamese accent.) Another rationalisation has the tradition going back to when darkness represented evil; that Black Peter is actually the conquered devil, and that his colour and joy of mischief are the only leftovers of an evil beaten out of him by St. Nick. Either way – may it be through soot or sin – blackness tends to cling. As does St. Nick during the rest of the year as the official patron saint of not only Amsterdam itself, but also other favourites of Odin such as merchants, prostitutes, thieves and sailors (who, interestingly, paid tribute to their saint for centuries by using the term ‘doing the St. Nicholas’ as slang for intercourse).

The historical Nicholas is not precisely traceable. He is likely a mixture of many Nicholi. One of them, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64), was eventually disowned by the Catholic Church for promoting the idea that all of the world’s gods were actually the same and therefore all deserving of equal respect. And in many ways Odin and St Nick are still the same: Odin not only shares the same followers as St Nick, but also rides the same kind of white horse and, in some stories, has some dark sidekicks chained to him… So with such similarities it’s easy to assume that St. Nick is simply Odin cross-dressed as a bishop. And in turn, Odin is the devil – or so said the Church when they came to town. But as long as Satan continues to bring joy to the hearts of millions of kiddies each year, I’m pretty alright with it.

As for the Black Peter phenomena – a tradition that was only formalised during the last half of the 19th century… That just stays weird. And anything weird should be confronted. I’m just brainstorming here, but would it help if next year Black Peter was rebranded as a Jew? Or perhaps as a Canadian?

The debate will undoubtedly continue…

Facebook Twitter Tumblr Email

Tags: , , , ,

Posted in Uncategorized 12 years, 4 months ago at 1:22 pm.


3 Replies

  1. I think we are talking about a conflation of Krampus (the original antithesis to St Nick in old Europe to what is now St Peter’s role, maybe the Dutch conflated this devilish/trickster figure with African ethnicity/skin color at the turn of the century?

  2. Yes. Krampus scared the sh*t out of everyone, adults too, in Austria.
    I witnessed his processions a few times when I lived there. He accompanies saint Nic around also December 6th.
    He’s a scary beast though, nothing fun or frolicking and no candy. He makes a lot if noise, shakes bells, rattles bones, dons large teeth. Gnarly!

  3. You, good sir, deserve an internet! Well put, well written and a good description of what’s going on. Once again, the Canadians come to the rescue.

Leave a Reply