Saint Nicholas is coming: Welcome Black Pete!

Listen to this article

December 5 is approaching fast, which means that small children in Holland and Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) are getting nervous and excited.

Because December 5 is the annual feast day of ‘Sinterklaas’ or ‘Saint Nicholas’ (the precursor of Santa Claus), when the children who have been good and honest will get praise and presents from the holy man. For Saint Nicholas is the protector and savior of children, and besides this he is also the guardian of sailors and the patron saint of the city of Amsterdam. No wonder that he is an ageless and important symbol in Dutch culture!

And December 5 is also the day that Dutch adults give each other anonymous presents that are supposed to come from Saint Nicholas. These presents have to be accompanied by a poem that expresses love, gratitude or even mockery. You want to sens a message to the woman that you secretly love? Or make something clear to your annoying boss? December 5 is your chance, and anything goes as long as it is expressed in a poem and accompanied by a sweet present, like the traditional Saint Nicholas gift: a chocolate initial of her or his name.

Black Peter (Wikipedia)
Black Peter (Wikipedia)

But the past few years this friendly and innocent Dutch family feast of Saint Nicholas is turning sour, because the “Black Peters,” the helpers of Saint Nicholas, are accused of being racist symbols and reminders of the time of slavery, slave trade and racial discrimination. Even the UN Human Rights Council has made “Black Peter” into an important issue and symbol, in its world wide efforts to eliminate racial differences and discrimination. But here the UN misses an important point and it ignores the earliest European history and its oldest traditions. For there is much more to Saint Nicholas and Black Pete than meets the eye, because both have a history that goes back for many centuries.

There is historical evidence that Christian feasts like Saint Nicholas, Christmas and Epiphany have arisen from pre-Christian Germanic and Nordic Midwinter Solstice rituals that were once celebrated all over central and northern Europe. A Christmas tree with decorations, candles and presents, is an ancient symbol that expresses the joy for the return of the light and the hope for a bountiful harvest in the coming year. The nativity scene was only added after the advent of Christianity in Europe. Just like Easter, which was originally a ritual to express gratitude for the renewed life and fertility in nature, but which was later also adapted to the Christian faith.

The mythological god Odin or Wodan played an important role in these pre-Christian Midwinter rituals, and much of this is still recognizable in Saint Nicholas, like his magic cape, cap and staff. And, especially, his horse that allows him to ride over the rooftops and fly from house to house to bring presents to the children.

However, Black Pete is equally fascinating, because he, too, is an ancient and mythological European Midwinter symbol. And besides Holland and Belgium, he is also popular in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other countries in central Europe. There are reasons to assume that Black Pete is in fact an adapted and domesticated continuation of the once fearsome ‘beserkers’, the helpers and protectors of the god Odin.

These “beserkers” not only existed in early European mythology, but also in real history as fearless and reckless Nordic warriors who wore bearskins and made themselves black to be more scary during daytime and to be invisible during the night.

And these functions of protector and servant are still visible in the Black Pete of today. And just like the mythological ‘beserkers’ a true Black Pete also acts a bit wild and crazy, because because he is the life and spirit of the feast.  But he also has to watch for intruders and “disbelievers” who want to disrupt the party.

And to perform these tasks he is completely free to roam around among the festive crowds, making fun and doing acrobatics, while handing out small presents and sweets to the children. But at the same time also checking for misbehaving and unwanted persons.

Traditionally, Black Pete also had the task to catch naughty and disrespectful children and bring them to Saint Nicholas for a stern reprimand, which explains the double attitude of many children towards Black Pete. In their heart they know that he is their friend and protector, who secretly and invisibly enters their house to bring presents at night. But on the other hand he is a bit scary because he is black and extravagant and knows everything about you.

But in the end it is not Saint Nicholas himself, but always the good Black Pete, the friend and protector of children, the bringer of presents, but also he punisher of bad and evil, who is the most popular and most loved figure in European folk culture.

Let’s hope that the lack of understanding of the UN Human Rights Council doesn’t destroy that symbol, for in reality Black Pete belongs on the UN Cultural World Heritage List!

17 thoughts on “Saint Nicholas is coming: Welcome Black Pete!

  • October 25, 2015 at 6:31 AM

    Sinterklaas is a official Dutch tradition its even on the UN Cultural World Heritage List! It has roots going back to the early Germanic cultures who lived here for centuries.

    Children and grandchildren of immigrants who came to the Netherlands after 1950 now accuse this part of authentic Dutch culture as being racist. Mostly because they have not been able to find their place in the Dutch community and now rebel against it.

    High crime rates and unemployment are very common in the same communities of those who now point to everything and everyone as the reason of their own failure to succeed in life.

    This tradition and part of culture has nothing to do with slavery of racism, but those who choose to feel offended can always find something.

    This helps them not to have to look at themselves.

    • October 25, 2015 at 8:43 AM

      You are distorting the truth as this ‘tradition’ is NOT on any UNESCO list, neither is it a tradition officially sanctioned by the Dutch government. Also, nobody is being accused of being racist, but the racist nature of this blackface character has been called out and quite rightly so. It is also NOT true and quite frankly a blatant lie that these protests are coming from communities that are underachieving. Apparently, this ‘tradition’ needs to be supported by telling blatant lies about it, and about those who dare speak out against it. All the more reason for a critical evaluation, as the UN CERD has done and who has in no uncertain terms recommended this aspect of the tradition be changed and made acceptable for all Dutch residents, including members of the black communities.

      • October 25, 2015 at 6:30 PM

        It is a official recognized dutch cultural heritage and placed on the long list for the Unesco nomination.

        “Het Sinterklaasfeest is op de Nationale Inventaris Immaterieel Cultureel Erfgoed
        in Nederland geplaatst. Dat maakte het Centrum voor Volkscultuur en
        Immaterieel Erfgoed (VIE) vandaag bekend. Ook Zwarte Piet hoort daarbij.”

        So its official dutch cultural heritage and also it includes black pete, so go cry yourself a river. An while your doing that please read up on some ancient traditions regarding “black” characters..

        The whole blackface thing has nothing to do with fictional characters in myths.

        And the dutch protesters are well-known underachievers, shouting racism at every opportunity they get about everything they don’t like..

        Instead of being a bit more introspective they turn their anger at the white community.

  • October 24, 2015 at 5:02 AM

    Stop Dutch racism now!!!

    • October 25, 2015 at 6:31 PM

      The original freedom riders would turn their heads in shame..

      • October 26, 2015 at 8:46 PM

        No they would not as they would also tell you to be ashamed of this filthy Dutch colonial racism. Black face is racism. This racist Dutch festivity is a throw back to slavery.

        • November 9, 2015 at 2:01 PM

          You know nelson mandela was a real racist? And the black people of south africa are so too? A white genocide is happening there right now? Why don’t you fight that fact? It surely is more today than slavery is today in the Netherlands…

  • October 23, 2015 at 2:59 PM

    Seldom have I read a story so full of the usual apologetic humbug regarding the Dutch Black Peter “tradition” than this one. What we are dealing with is a relic from a time right after the Dutch abolished the transatlantic slave trade. Black Peter is an invention of a 19th century Dutch writer of children’s books, who added the figure of a ‘servant’ to an already existing Saint Nicholas tradition, and according to the mores of those days, this servant was black. There are absolutely no indications of any figure preceding this book, and in fact, the widespread addition of the Black Peter figure to the Sinterklaas celebration happened many years after this children’s book was published. These are all cultural historical facts. To anyone who does not know this “tradition” it is obvious: this is blackfacing, plain and simple and therefore racist. The Dutch, however, are not so fortunate as we are from childhood on exposed to this figure and most of us have happy memories of this yearly event. For many of us it is very difficult to shed that piece of ‘mild indoctrination’ and for some this seems completely impossible. Hence the apologetic stories like this one, hence the high rising emotions when it comes to protests and request to alter Black Peter’s appearance and make him more acceptable, as per recommendation to the Netherland’s of the UN’s Committee for the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination. A recommendation that I, as a white citizen of the Netherlands, fully endorse, as I believe there should be no place for blatant racial caricatures such as the present Black Peter in any civilized country.

    • October 24, 2015 at 5:00 AM

      Correct this is pure authentic Dutch racism. The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863 but the slaves only became free in 1873 as they had to work 10 more years as a slave to pay for their own liberation, this to pay off the white Dutch plantation owners for their loss.

      The black slave figure was introduced by a Dutch school teacher in 1850. As you can see during a time when the Dutch were still boosting their economy via slavery. So this black face figure is a throwback to slavery.

      The white Dutch will invent a lot of lies to masquerade their white lie. Still they can’t explain how a white man comes out of a chimney looking as an African, a black face the way the white people have ridiculed black people, with red lips, curly hair.

      It is time that the World stands up to the Dutch and serves them the check for this racism. Therefore I invite you all to the Freedom Ride to Meppel on November the 14 as we will be there to protest against this filthy Dutch racism.

      • October 24, 2015 at 5:01 AM


        • November 9, 2015 at 2:03 PM

          I’ll be there… as a black Pete…

      • October 24, 2015 at 7:04 PM

        I keep thinking that it’s so sad that you want to call our children racist and to break their hearts. You want to kill their childness by your protest on the day millions of dutch children will chear Sint and his black Peters…

        You didn’t live in the time of slavery. You are as free as any other person in the Netherlands. It is so sad that you use that freedom to kill the freedom of people who don’t share your view…

        • October 25, 2015 at 8:49 AM

          Nobody is calling the children racist, nobody is calling even their ignorant parents racist, people calling the racial caricature Black Peter racist, as it represent a blackface character of which -apparently more civilized nations- have some time ago decided it should be banned from public display. And quite rightly so. You are deliberately obscuring the actual state of affairs by claiming falsehoods. And you persist in portraying a racist character in public in spite of national and international well-documented objections. You claim to hate racism, but you still actively and hypocritically continue and support the public portrayal of a proven racist character. You need to educate yourself on racial issues, racism and its expressions.

          • October 25, 2015 at 6:34 PM

            Wow so you are calling a fictional mythical character from an ancient tradition out for being a racial blackface stereotype?


        • October 29, 2015 at 9:23 PM

          So why do white children need a festival with racism? Do they really need racism to have a happy childness? What about the black kids suffering from this festivity?

          Is it all about the happiness of white kids at the expense of black kids?

          Would you have a Pyjama Party in Holocaust clothing? You did not live in the time of the Holocaust so it is okay to do so right?

          Stop filthy white colonial racism. #FreedomRideToMeppel #Stopblackface

    • October 25, 2015 at 4:11 PM

      ”There are absolutely no indications of any figure preceding this book”

      Let me quote Jan ter Gouw for you: ”Gingen te Amsterdam de ‘Zwarte Klazen’, onder groot rumoer, en met
      schoorsteenkettingen een afgrijselijke muziek op de straatkeijen
      makende; de buurten rond, om op deuren en vensters te bonzen en met een
      bullebaksstem te roepen: ‘Synder ook quaje kyeren?’ – ook te Franeker
      zag Dr. Verwijs die, ‘vreeselijk toegetakeld en vermomd, onder
      vervaarlijk geschreeuw en geraas de streek langs trekken’4).”

      Black faced characters (representing evil or the devil, not black people) have existed, and still exist, in many European Saint Nicholas traditions. It is certainly not the invention of the 19th century writer.

  • October 23, 2015 at 2:21 PM

    The Sinterklaas ritual is a turn of the year ritual. Saint Nicholas is the infertile Winterking, white as snow. He is about to die: people celebrate his death day, 6 December. He is the Old Year. Zwarte Piet is his heir to the throne: he is the New Year, youthful, rebellious, renewing, fertility bringing, the yang to Saint Nicholas yin, in just about everything he is Saint Nicholas opposite. It is one of the reasons why Zwarte Piet is pitch black. (Another reason is that he rules the dead in Hell, and in Hell there is hellish UV radiation.)

Comments are closed.