A Christmas controversy

Mark Mardell explains the festive customs in the Low Countries that prompt an ethical debate – from Sinterklaas the noble Santa Claus figure, to his mischievous minstrel sidekick Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

This article was originally published in December 2013

Christmas comes early in Belgium and the Netherlands. Children get their presents on 6 December from St Nick or Sinterklaas, as they call him. Many towns hold festivals and parades when he comes visiting, but British and Americans, happily pushing their children forward to get a little present and an early glimpse of Father Christmas, tend to do a shocked double take when they spot his helper.

While recognisably the model for Father Christmas, Santa here is still a saint and a churchman. He wears a long red robe and a golden mitre, and carries a bishop’s crook. He is kindly, sober and very much the visiting dignitary. His sidekick Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), however, is a rascal and a prankster who throws sweets in the air. There’s also the dark possibility that he could put you in his sack and take you away if you’ve been naughty. But that’s not the reason for the double take. 

Zwarte Piet is nearly always a blacked-up white man or woman with big, rouged lips, a tight curly wig and dressed in bright pantaloons, a big ruff and gold earrings. A very old-fashioned and, to many, offensive caricature of a black man.

We all know the original Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, was a bishop from Myra in what is now Turkey. He probably attended the critical council of Nicaea and was martyred by a Roman Emperor. His remains are buried in Bari in Italy.

But that’s not where he lives now. You probably think he comes from Lapland or the North Pole and gets around in a sleigh pulled by Rudolph and his pals. But every child in the Low Countries knows that he resides in Spain and travels north in a steam ship. In the old days if you were naughty Black Pete might give you a strapping or put coal in your shoes. But if you were really bad he might put you in his sack and take you back to far off Iberia.

The Spanish connection is easy: the Lowlands were ruled from Spain under the Hapsburgs and Spanish soldiers would have been both a familiar sight. Spain equals far away and foreign. Saint Nick is not so daft, if he prefers the Costas to the tundra.

Black Pete’s origins are more problematic. There are suggestions that he started life as a Moorish servant from Spain, a Turkish orphan rescued by St Nick, or an Ethiopian slave freed by him. Some, squirming with embarrassment, explain that Black Pete gets black from soot coming down the chimney. If so it doesn’t explain why he looks like a Victorian colonialist’s supposedly humorous caricature of a black person. But perhaps Black Pete’s origins lie further back and raise even more concerns about today’s portrayal.

Among his miracles and good deeds St Nicholas also had time to combat the devil and medieval pictures show him with Satan in chains. The devil is often painted black, but it’s possible Pete is pre-Christian. One of his jobs is to look after Sleipnir, Santa’s horse. He’s an elegant but normal nag and has the same name as Norse god Odin’s eight-legged steed. Odin is often portrayed taking dead souls back to the underworld. Guess what colour they are? Black. 

Earlier I deliberately wrote of Zwart Pete’s “darker” side. It is this unthinking western link between evil, death, colour and coarse caricature that so worries some. Others point out that it is Pete who is really loved by the kids, not the stuffy Bishop, and they always add that it’s a bit of harmless fun. Here, it’s a debate that is as seasonal as Christmas itself.

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