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17# The curious story of Zwarte Piet

4 min read

Before elves and reindeer, St. Nicholas had a much more eerie assistant, such a Black Peter and, interestingly, the physical opposite of St. Nicholas himself! Tall and gaunt with a dark beard and hair, Black Peter was associated with the punitive side of Christmas. Traditionally St. Nicholas would hand out presents to good children, while it fell to Black Peter to dole out coal, and sometimes knocks on the head, to children who misbehaved.

The story of Black Peter (or Zwarte Piet in Dutch), began in Holland in the 15th century. His dark appearance is supposed to suggest a Spaniard, a reflection of Spain’s occupation of the Netherlands at the time, but he was also associated with pirates, a popular threat to naughty Dutch children at the time. He was often represented holding a large stick, and the large bag that he held was rumored to be used for stuffing children in for the trip back to Spain.
At the time actually Black Peter was a euphemism for the devil, and it was thought that St. Nicholas, being a representative of God, had beaten the devil and made him his servant. Thus it fell to Black Peter to hand out the punishments, while St. Nicholas dealt with the more pleasant sides of Christmas.

Despite the Dutch St. Nicholas has always been represented in much the same way, similar to the original saint in long robes with a staff, tall mitre hat, and white long beard, Black Peter has been depicted in many different ways.
Originally he was a stereotypical Spaniard in pirate garb, due to the political situation in Holland at the time, but his later images that would also reflect popular politics. In the nineteenth century, for istance, at the height of imperialism, he was alternately portrayed as an Indian and an African in traditional dress. Rather than the devil that had been made a servant of St. Nicholas, he was now thought to be a slave who had become the willing servant of the Saint. In addition, many of the illustrations took on racist symbolism, often showing Black Peter in shackles and tattered garments. His job was to remove the hay and carrots from the shoes that had been left by children underneath their chimneys, and to drop candy and gifts in their place, but If the children had been bad, Peter wouldn’t remove the hay and would leave a rod in place of a gift.

In parts of central Europe like Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, something similar to the character of Black Peter was depicted like a monster, with horns, long hair, and a red tongue. He was known by a variety of names as Klaubauf, Krampus, Grampus, Bartel and, traditionally, St. Nicholas sent naughty children to him to be beaten.
Interestingly, nowadays there is still not one universal image of Black Peter. However, in most of his versions he has lost his large stick and is usually dressed in a Renaissance page style costume with short pants, stockings, and a cap with a large feather. But has not lost his connection to Africa: he is still always portrayed by a black person, and often wears gold earrings.

The character gained popularity in the twentieth century and St. Nicholas’s and Black Peter’s annual arrival in Holland became more elaborate: during World War II, it was thought that the tradition would be suspended, until Canadian soldiers offered some of their tanks to use for the purpose. On one of the tanks were St. Nicholas and one Black Peter, while multiple Black Peters were on the other tanks. The tanks, with Canadian soldiers at the helm and Black Peter sitting on the back, traversed the countryside, handing out candy and gifts to children who waited by the roadside.
Today the negative associations have left Black Peter and he has become more of an elf-like figure, an assistant to an overloaded St. Nicholas who helps to hand out gifts every December 5th, St. Nicholas Day in Holland, while the Dutch continue to stage elaborate arrivals of both characters.
In the weeks before the feast, they arrive by boat, supposedly from Spain, and are greeted by ever increasing crowds of excited children and not only.

Images from web – Google Research

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