The Legend & Lore of Zwarte Piet

In Holland, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is the assistant to Sinter Klaas and is part of the annual feast of St. Nicholas on Sinterklaasavond, the evening of December 5th. Zwarte Piet is dressed in an elaborate Renaissance costume and traditional believed to be a Moor from Spain. Other stories give his origin as a slave that was freed by Sinterklaas or perhaps a chimney sweep. It is unclear when the character became part of the folklore of Sinterklaas, he appears, unnamed, in an 1850 book by Jan Schenkmann, Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). The Zwarte Piet may be derived from the Krampus character of Germany. A book in 1911, Van Sinterklaas en Pieterbaas is credited with popularizing the name Piet.

In the 19th century his role was to discipline and even carry off the naughty children in his burlap sack; while the good children received treats and presents. In the 20th century both the roles of Piet and Sinterklaas became more positive and today Piet brings gifts and special Sinterklaas candies, pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed.

He arrives by boat with Sinterklaas a few weeks before December 5th and is welcomed by a parade. During the weeks before the holiday they visit schools , hospitals and stores.

After World war II, a group of Canadian soldiers, liberating Holland, organized a celebration to distribute gifts to children. So many soldiers dressed up, that a large number of Zwarte Pieten appeared in Amsterdam on December 5, 1946. Since then there have been groups of Pieten, much like the elves of Santa Claus.

Today there is a lot of controversy surrounding the Piet figure. Even though he is a much loved character in Holland, the way he is portrayed is viewed by some as a racist and negative racial stereotype, while a large majority of the population view him in a positive light. The Piet is usually played by a white person in blackface with a curly wig and exaggerated red lips.

The Dutch Folk Culture Centre, in 2014, began to discuss the future of Zwarte Piet and a court ruling in July stated that the portrayal is offensive and perpetuates a negative stereotype of black people. There have been demonstrations on both sides of the issue.

The tradition of Piet is extremely strong in Holland and changes in the presentation of the character that are less stereotypical have been introduced. In some celebrations he is now presented more as a chimney sweep covered in soot or in some cases there are “Rainbow Piet” that are in an assortment of rainbow colors.

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