What Exactly Is Black Pete?

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, our Dutch correspondent H. Numan presents some detailed background information on the venerable tradition of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) and Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) in the Netherlands.

What exactly is Black Pete?
by H. Numan

Difficult question, as the origins are hidden in the fog of history. There isn’t a single fixed date on which Black Pete emerged. Same for Saint Nicholas. The saint took over an existing pre-Christian festival. The poor saint always had problems, because after the Dutch revolt Calvinists ruled the country, and they didn’t like saints one little bit. Something like the Puritans of Cromwell: if it’s fun, it’s sin. So they tried — in vain — to banish the festival. We’re talking 17th-18th centuries here.

Black Pete might be a symbol for the devil. Other Santas in Europe are clearer about that. Schmutzli is the companion of Samiclaus, who is almost a 100% twin brother of Saint Nicholas.

In The Netherlands, Black Pete has never been associated with slavery in any way. He was always depicted as a servant, a companion or a friend.

Usually Black Petes are just ordinary Dutch (M/F) wearing a costume with a lot of makeup on their face. Anyone can be a Black Pete. Even my old mum (long ago, of course) was one many occasions one. Most often Black Petes are teenage boys, but this isn’t a rule. My mum had great fun being Black Pete, and she particularly liked it when people not only didn’t know who she was, but also had difficulty discovering her sex. There aren’t female Black Petes; they all are dressed exactly the same — male only.

Now, here’s a nice thought: that is blatant discrimination based on sex. Why aren’t there female Black Petes? Feminists, join the anti-Pete movement!

The role of Black Pete has changed over de centuries. At first he was the ‘bad cop’, Saint Nicolas being the good cop. You can still see that in the bundle of twigs Black Petes often carry. Those twigs were used to chastise naughty children. Really bad kids were put in the bag (now bereft of gifts) and taken to Spain for punishment. Putting coal in a stocking is for wimpy fat Santas!

Today Black Pete is very different. From a bogeyman he changed into the friend and companion of Santa, helping the old man (Saint Nicholas is supposed to be many centuries old) out. We used to have one Pete accompanying the saint, nowadays there are many. Some in management positions, such as the “Head Pete” and the “Gift Pete”; others clown around.

Children used to be scared of Black Pete, but no longer. “Black Pete is going to put you in the bag to Spain if you don’t behave!” is something only old geezers (such as myself…) remember from their childhood. Today Black Pete is an amiable figure, well loved by children. In fact, some kids are more afraid of Saint Nicholas than Black Pete. Black Pete makes funny faces and gives them candy. Saint Nicholas is a stern-looking prelate of the church. Given the track record of RC prelates, who can blame them?

Another question is: is The Netherlands losing its tolerance?

Yes and no. The Dutch are usually very easygoing people. “Do as you like, as long as you don’t bother others with it” is the general attitude. A centuries-old tradition, which brought among others Spinoza and Descartes to live there.

That attitude is prevalent in many issues that are almost impossible elsewhere. Why is smoking marijuana (sort of) legal in The Netherlands? Well, because it is next to impossible to ban and you don’t bother anyone with it. So why spent a fortune on the impossible?

Why did gay marriage become legal first in The Netherlands? Same story: it has nothing to do with religion (a civil marriage is a contractual obligation between two persons), and it doesn’t affect others at all. Unless those others are going to peek in the couple’s bedroom. Which is none of their business to begin with).

And now we see something quite un-Dutch: political correctness is as opposite as you can get from that ‘never mind, do what you want as long as you keep it to yourself’ attitude.

Since this Black Pete storm in a teacup started in September politically very correct people are as busy as they dare affecting others. The national ombudsman is one of their high priests, and he ordained ex cathedra that the Dutch government and the population are very much racist.

Politically correct persons ride on his wagon, and find all kinds of terrible racist abuses. The Dutch police, for example, are highly racist. They tend to observe minorities (beggars, juvenile boys in groups, suspicious East Europeans, etc.) more closely than other people, and that is racist.

Facts are irrelevant. A group of “North African” type juvenile boys is very often going to be trouble. That’s what common sense tells you.

Suppose you see a gang of boys with bottles of liquor in a bad part of town. Are you going to avoid them, or pass them by as if they are kindergarten girls on an outing?

If you are politically correct, the latter. Supposing the “impossible” happens, that means there aren’t enough police, and they are without enough powers, and they only eat donuts?

Getting back on topic. Black Pete has nothing to do with racism. Just as calling a waiter in French garçon doesn’t mean you’re shouting: Boy, come over here! Even though the word “garçon” means boy.

Black faces in America are something very different from what at first glance appears the same in The Netherlands. Black Pete never was a black face, though he has a blackened face.

How many people are involved in the anti-Pete issue? Not a lot; the foot soldiers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Just a few extreme left-wing white and less ethnically colored people. However, since this is a major issue for politically correct people, it tends to get on people’s nerves.

If you want to be someone in Dutch society you have to be politically correct; that’s party-wide. Doesn’t make much difference which party you would support (except one); you have to be politically correct. That means there are a heck of a lot of people enforcing their fantasies on society. Because those zealots are doing whatever they think they can get away with.

In one town political correctness suggested Saint Nicholas should not be accompanied by Black Petes, become a bit fatter, be a bit more cheerful (“ho, ho, ho”) and be driven in a limousine as he is to fat to sit on a horse. Oh, and without that cross, as we do not want to offend other (salaam!) religions, do we?

Imagine Obama taking time off from his healthcare program and suggesting Kris Kringle must change from his red outfit into a red jalaba riding a cart pulled by donkeys or camels as not to offend other (salaam!) religions.

Don’t think for a minute the government is any different. If anything, they would love to see a jolly chap in a red suit riding a donkey cart on Ashura. If those ignorant bigoted illiterate dumb racists — their electorate — would only swallow it.

Wouldn’t you lose your tolerance too?

Note: The feared violence over the issue of Black Pete did not materialize today, at least in Groningen (hat tip Fjordman):

45,000 Celebrate Sinterklaas Arrival in Groningen

The arrival of Sinterklaas in Groningen was attended by some 45,000 people and there were no protests about the inclusion of Zwarte Piet in the parade, Nos television said on Saturday.

17 thoughts on “What Exactly Is Black Pete?

  1. Being physically descended in part from the people who excommunicated Baruch Spinoza and wholeheartedly a spiritual descendant of those who jailed Hugo Grotius (Christlijke Gereformeerde), I was not a big fan of teaching my sons about Santa Claus–or making that big a to-do about Christmas, either.

    But this reminds me of things back in the Silly ‘Sixties and Sillier ‘Seventies here in the USA. There was invariably a lot of noise about how a blue-eyed, pale-skinned Santa Claus was “racist”. Well, what the dickens do you expect from a figure who got into our national folklore from the Netherlanders of erstwhile Nieuw Amsterdam?

    Yes, these creeps need to get a life.

  2. I sent the following message to Navanethem Pillay at the UN and also a copy to the Dutch government. The UN did not reply (no surprise). The Dutch government responded that they read and filed it and expressed thanks.

    To: Navanethem Pillay
    U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

    Reports are circulating that you will be investigating the Dutch national folklore fest Sinterklaas. Specifically the Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) which some claim to be racist. I can certainly understand how one could look at Zwarte Piet and think that it looks like an expression of a racist attitude.

    Those that study Analytical Psychology which focuses on the psychology and anatomy of the unconscious psyche see the Zwarte Piet as a shadow figure. Calling it racist is a rush to judgment. The Zwarte Piet also has historical roots in Norse mythology, roots so ancient that it cannot be considered racist.

    All of us carry a psychological shadow – there are no exceptions. I can attest to this myself. In my own dreams my shadow is a black man that shows me things I do not want to know or can’t see on my own. In Americans the psychological shadow often appears in dreams as an American Indian or a Negro. In Europe it usually appears as a Negro. If you study cultural traditions and festivals you can often spot a representation of the shadow. Other common representations of the psychological shadow are the fool, the clown, and the joker. We need these representations of the psychological shadow acted out in our cultural traditions in order to unconsciously project our personal shadow which must be allowed to be expressed.

    If you use an ideological based interpretation of the Zwarte Piet that calls it racist you may successfully repress it in the Sinterklaas festival. But, if you repress it and repress other cultural manifestations of the psychological shadow you run up against a psychological law: repression of the shadow will only strengthen it to act unconsciously with greater and negative force which will fuel ideological extremism or overt racial or ethnic violence. By increasing repression of symbols of the psychological shadow you are fueling the opposite of your good intentions.

    I strongly recommend that you apply psychology to your analysis of the Zwarte Piet. You can discuss symbols of the psychological shadow with a Jungian Psychologist by contacting the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. If you do not get a response contact me and I will help you make contact with someone for further discussion of this issue.

  3. Tolerance in The Netherlands died in 1990 when they banned (it was lkiterally in bookstores one day and gone the next) the most important book published in that country in the second-hand of the 20th century: “The Downfall of the Netherlands- land of the naive fools” written as an existential warning by a Muslim apostate (using a nom de guerre) who was desperately trying to explain to the wishful-thinking Dutch that they had blindly invited into their land a militant, colonizing group sworn to their destruction- the followers of the ‘prophet’ Mohammad.

    The of-so-tolerant Dutch decided that such criticism of poor Muslims must be “racist” and fined the author …after banning his book.

    Theo Van Gogh learned the price of criticizing Islam when one of its followers slaughtered him on his way to work on the streets of Amsterdam.

    The author of “The Downfall of the Netherlands” had predicted just such “cultural enrichment” a decade and more earlier.

    Geert Wilders has helped restore some sanity to this cause, but the blot on the Dutch -by their removal of a book warning them that they were courting extinction by their own witless decision to not examine Islam’s goals- will be a permanent shame on the nation.

  4. I grew up in Switzerland. We had Nickolaus and Schmutzli come to our door every year on December 6th. It’s a huge tradition.

    We, kids, had to say a poem, listen to Nickolaus rattling off the list of devious deeds we committed through the year, and then we were gifted with whole peanuts, mandarins, chocolates and a “Bäse”, a kind of a hand tied mini broom made from sticks. It was to remind us that Schmutzli was watching us.

    It’s a wonderful tradition, and now that I’m in the process of moving back to Switzerland after having given up here in the US after living here for 16 years, I’m looking forward for my daughter to experience this tradition as well.

  5. The book “The Downfall of the Netherlands, land of the naive fools” was an eye opener. The book discusses two hot items in one. It explains what kind of fool the Dutch government was by managing themselves to the point of no return of their self destruction war between civilization based on perfect Greek and Roman traditions in wisdom and science, and the intolerant primitive sadistic teachings of an up-to-date pagan religion and his believers, based on backwardness and koran lessons how to hate and murder dissidents and how to discriminate women. Such desert fools will never match with the Dutch people.

    If the eyes of the Dutch people were opened by this book with nothing more told then the thruth of the sun that does not move, the Dutch Government feared big, big problems among the population. And the whole truth about islam and their believers as an overwhelming amount of information came for the government at an awkward moment. They had choosen for a multicultural society like the idea of a meltingpot of soup which was left from a delicious dinner.

  6. Sinterklaas used to have a christian cross on his bishop’s hat. In Amsterdam, the christian cross has been replaced by the Amsterdam coat of arms (three crosses) for the usual reasons : as not to “offend people from other religious groups” which means : muslims.

    Another traditional celebration for children of catholic origin is “Sankt Martin” in Germany. In Holland it is called “Sint Maarten” (it is not as widespread in the Netherlands because Holland was largely protestant). Kids make paper lanterns, sometimes dress up, and go around trick-or-treating.

    The left parties in Berlin’s city council now want to ban “Sankt Martin” celebrations as to not offend muslims. They would prefer German and immigrant children celebrate “Sun, moon and stars” (whatever that is) together.

    In, Amsterdam one lady caused a proverbial storm in a teacup, by refusing to give candy to Moroccan trick or treaters, claiming Sint Maarten is “only for Christian kids”.

    This lady was promptly reported by the children’s mothers and accused of “racism and discrimination”.

  7. Thanks for the really funny interpretation of this festival, and all the comments. Also the political side is a good one. I compare the action of Shepherd as throwing a new Paris apple in Dutch society, to elevate conflict, supported by the United Nations. My primary conclusion after some context analysis of different sides is, that people from the outside, never discover the underlying values (being good/white, preventing evil/black, learning this to children) and translating it to: slavery and discrimination, while I do not have the idea, after the mass collection in the Netherlands after some nature disasters where colored people are involved, that they are racists, why do they offer so much money to people of all colors? It is stated that this Verene Shepherd is also the motor of economy: investigating the debt of the ancestors of the Dutch, being slave drivers and Dutch nowadays have to pay for it. It this also political correct to do that, and that is might be a sort of Paris apple, the minority threw in her direction? So she took it to drive the discussion in that direction, and preferentially under the guide of the government, as stated by the United Nations (november 2013).

  8. Pingback: The Prague-Edinburgh Axis | Gates of Vienna

  9. Yeah, yeah, yeah you can see the correspondent is a white pro-Sinterklaas Dutchman. Nice story but it only covers some aspects of the festival we in Holland or the Netherlands (and parts of Belgium, Suriname) call ‘Sinterklaas’. I dont like to spent to many words on it. I am a white Dutchman myself but I have a different (more objective) opinion about Sinterklaas. For start we have to remember Holland and expecially the city of Amsterdam back in the 17th and 18th centuries have had an hugh share in the world black slave trade. Amsterdam back in those centuries was the number one slavetrading capitol of the world, enriching itself out of the deportations of black slaves from Africa to the American colonies. Not many do you read about it in Dutch history books. Also the most fysical features of Black Pete link direct to their slavery descent no doubt about that. The point is that the ancestry of those black slaves from suriname who are now protesting. Its true most dutch including myself dont see Black Pete as a slave or former slave in any way. BUt maybe that isnt enough. We have to realize our past and can at least try to understand some feelings from former slave descendants and or/ change some of the features of Black Pete.

    • Thom, As a response to your story. I would like to say the following: It IS enough ….. Now in this day and age black Pete IS NOT in any way considered a lingering kind of racism. In any culture you will find some proverbial skeleton in the closet. The English, French, Americans, Australians, all europeans and their descendant… But it still goes further than that, in Africa slaves were captured and sold by other Africans. American Indians also kept slaves, in india, the cast system can be considered slavery, in south America, slaves were kept by the great Inca gods. And so on …
      What I’m saying is that maybe, in stead of pointing to obvious differences in color and calling that racism. These people should look into their own roots first and then maybe they’ll discover the hands of their ancestors aren’t that clean. And then maybe they can reflect on their own attitudes, and customs towards their fellow countrymen of different colors, beliefs, backgrounds and than they may see this sinterklaas and black Pete in a different light. and see that the dutch aren’t that bad after all. Children aren’t taught that black Pete is a slave or in anyway less of a man than singer I laws , on the contrary, they are taught that he is their biggest and best friend!

      Or to put it in short: they should look at their own discriminatory past, ‘stop calling the kettle black’, and ask themselves how are they teaching their children that rasism is wrong?

  10. Maybe you can better point at the center of Amsterdam, the canals houses and so on built with money , earned in dishonest ways, However, I did not find any correlation between this roman catholic festival, celebrated in many countries in western Europe and slavery and discrimination. That the Dutch were involved in slave trade it is well known, also that people of Africa themselves also were involved in it, is maybe not so much known. However, as I stated and investigated from many scientific fields (also this historical one) i did not find the correlation. So it is up to people who are stating this to declare from which sources they found this correlation. The history of Saint Nicolas is not so much known, because of the raise of Protestantism in the Netherlands is was celebrated mainly at home and not in public. This happens mostly after WW II and the Canadian soldiers brought many Piet men with Sinterklaas. However television was not so much spread at that time, so it is only known by a small select group of people. Nowadays, everyone is looking at television, and there are so much media, that it is well known. The protest is coming mostly from Surinam people at Amsterdam. This groups has a group identity, not so much individualistic as Dutch, and suffer from a sad history, also general speaking do not have much education, good jobs and other migrants are even doing it better than Surinams (not all of course but the group identity plays an important role, and also feeling inferior, maybe this festivity triggers this while there is no any connection with slavery or discrimination.

    • You throw around a lot of accusations in a very casual manner.
      Not intellectually wise, nor is it honest.
      No, not at all.
      Are you Dutch?
      You really must hate what you see in the mirror if you are.
      Does all this excuse cultural and national suicide?
      Does it?

  11. quotation Mark Brumbly:

    Christianity in general—and Catholicism in particular—contributed greatly to the abolition of slavery and the emergence of a common appreciation for fundamental human rights. Catholics, not Protestants, worked for the abolition of slavery in Latin American countries like Brazil. The Catholic appreciation of natural law—as opposed to the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (when Scripture tells slaves to obey their masters)—has always made slavery less reconcilable with Catholicism than Protestantism. The Church’s consistent teaching that all men are made in God’s image and are called to redemption in Christ has helped give rise to the modern notion of human rights and equality—ideas diametrically opposed to chattel slavery and that have led to a great diminishment in its practice.

    So 1. Saint Nicolas belongs to the Roman Catholic church
    so 2. The Catholic Church promotes human rights
    so 3. and worked on the abolition of slave trade and slavery
    so 4. Piet is intruduced in the latest 19th century of a schoolteacher belonging to the Nut van het Algemeen (to raise the education of everyone in society, especially for uneducated and poor people, also have knowledge of the psychology of the child, children are not an imitation of adults but have their own development that has to be investigated. So children have to make clear the difference between evil and good in a special way to understand about the moral being good, looking for an assistant like there is also in other west European countries, representing the evil (black persons, persons like a devil etc) but more friendly, understandable for children and introducing a knight for Sinterklaas, that reminds of black but is more friendly, understandable for children. This has nothing to do with discrimination or slavery. Because the UN Shepherd threw a Paris apple in society, the commotion about this became severe as never before, she did not understand about underlying values, and the history (in several ways) of this festival.

  12. There are more misunderstandings concerning paintings in the 17th – 18th century picturing Mores as servants. This was a job, but however these servants were rare, though it seems different because of the paintings but, these Mores were the same figures, made as a decoration, to be a contrast in color, variation and extra like the addition of animals. If you can read Dutch, read the book of Jan Nederveen Pieterse, available in the Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen. (Novib, Den Haag 1990). This was different in United States of America (slaves, not a job like in west of Europe).

    Hij werd toegevoegd als versiering, voor het contrast in kleur, als variatie in beeld en als extra luister; toegevoegd om dezelfde reden waarom een tafereel met bijvoorbeeld huisdieren werd uitgebreid. Zoals Samuel van Hoogstraten in 1678 (Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst) schreef:

    Bywerk geeft de dingen

    Een luister: zoo m’ook enich tam Gediert

    Te pas brengt, of gepluimt gevogelt, ‘t siert

    Het werk: zoo vind het oog ook een vernoegen

    Somtijts een Moor by maegdekens te voegen.

    [Machine translation: He was added as decoration, for the contrast in color, as variation in picture and if additional listening, added for the same reason a scene, for example, was expanded pets. As Samuel van Hoogstraten in 1678 (Inleyding to the High School of the Painter Konst) wrote:

    Bywerk gives things

    A listening: so m’ook enich tame Gediert

    Bring to pass, or poultry, gepluimt, it adorns

    Work: so like the eye also vernoegen

    Somtijts a Moor by maegdekens list.]

  13. I am disgusted at the anti-islamic, and racist comments from some of you. I am a history professor, and I see that some of you need to Tradition does not excuse ignorance, and intolerance. Santa Clause, Saint Nick, Sinter…. has nothing to do with the birth of Christ anymore than a bunny produced eggs. If the Netherlands is to keep this tradition, the argument for, should notbe exclusion; however, it should include. Teach the history of the tradition, as is, and thus explain the reality and myth of it all. The real history of Islam is of understanding, and which is the base of modern western medicine and other great scientific and Morale world contributions. Justification is won through truth, not misconception and denial. As the world continues to recognizehow great we (Dutch) are, and how we continue to lead in social issues, let’s not tarnish our greatness with western propaganda and hatred. We have legalized marijuana, Prostitution, and shown the world how you can be socially conscious and still provide healthcare. We are the Dutch, the original modern melting pot…and this its what made us great! Do not ruin it for the many of us that work abroad, and continue to be ambassadors for our great country.

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