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Zwarte Piet, or “Black Peter”

How’s this for a name? Yes, we’re talking about “Zwarte Piet” today. That is an actual name for an actual legend.

He’s a companion for St. Nicholas, like Krampus, but in different countries than where you’d find Krampus. Zwarte Piet shows up in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and surprisingly, Indonesia. (Old colonial and/or Moorish influence in the region.)

Black Peter usually wears a colorful jester’s outfit, with a poofy hat, and sometimes large gold earrings.

He plays a more traditional servant/assistant role. Arranging travel for St. Nicholas, amusing children, passing out sweets…oh, and he bonks naughty kids on the head with a stick.

Black Peter Sour Face
He looks appropriately cheery.

Black Peter’s Origin – A Curious Conundrum

Like other companions, Black Peter’s origin is muddled and mysterious.

Black Peter is said to come from Spain (in the Dutch origin story), as a 15th-century pirate or Moor who terrorized Dutch ports.

(At the time Spain occupied the Netherlands. I’m sure politics didn’t play a role in this at all.)

Peter was a cruel disciplinarian, who often punished naughty children during his raids by giving them coal. Or smacking them with a stick. Or throwing them in a sack to take back to Spain. Depends on his mood.

St. Nicholas (or “Sinterklaas” in Dutch) forced Black Peter into his service as a penance. Maybe this is a franchise kind of thing…each companion gets a territory for their kid-punishing duties.

Some slavery connotations do come up here, as a way of casting aspersions on Black Peter’s bad behavior. That said, the stories have become muddied & out of sync, so I’ll just mention it here, and move on.

Other sources indicate Black Peter comes from Christianized tales of Norse legends. Remember the parallels between St. Nicholas and the Norse god Odin? His ancient connection to Odin extends to Odin’s two ravens, Huginn and Muninn.

The ravens would fly across the world each day, and bring Odin the news they’d collected. Somehow two birds flying around translated into one dark-skinned guy helping out Old Saint Nick.

Somebody must have had the really good hallucinogenic bread that morning.

Still other sources suggest that Black Peter is simply a representation of the Devil, doing St. Nicholas’ bidding for the holiday season. I think this comes largely from local legends overlapping with Krampus tales. Hopefully Krampus is above professional jealousy.

Black Peter’s Depiction – Controversial? Not Quite

Not everyone likes Black Peter. How you’d ‘cancel’ a mythical figure I’m not sure, but people have tried in the past few years. Why?

Because people playing Black Peter sometimes wear blackface.

zwarte piet blackface cosplayers at parade

The reasoning behind this is more complex than most realize:

First, his name can also translate to “Sooty Pete.” When climbing down chimneys is part of the job, well, that stuff gets everywhere.

Second, recall Huginn and Muninn flying around the world each day. How would they get the news Odin wanted? By listening at people’s chimneys! You’re going to get soot on you by doing that many thousands of times.

Fortunately they were ravens, so nobody noticed.

Thirdly, medieval scholars tried to change Black Peter’s nature. When Christianizing Odin into St. Nicholas, the scholars purportedly assigned the ravens’ intelligence roles to demons that St. Nicholas captured. This is probably where the ‘Devil doing Nick’s bidding’ origin ties in.

Why a Christian saint wants to keep demons around, I don’t know. Especially since he had to chain them up to keep them in service. (Echoes of Krampus’ chains here…) Just contract some elves already!

A Holiday Reminder to Laugh

Why bring Zwarte Piet up in an author’s newsletter at all? Well, I think it’s good for one of my favorite activities – provoking thought.

History often muddies its own ground. To walk through it is never clean, or comfortable. It is good to remind ourselves of it though. Such history walks can stoke creativity, bring appreciation for today’s gifts, and encourage deep thoughts on what was vs. what is.

Black Peter is a caricature, and a goofy one. Though others may have thought him a denigration, he’s become a figure of celebration. A Fool, of sorts, for the holidays. So let’s enjoy the little bit of chaos this particular Fool may bring!

Zwarte Piet Performers
These ladies certainly do!


Published inMusingsNewsletter Archive