Zwarte Piet (pronounced [ˈzʋɑrtə ˈpit]; English: Black Pete or
Black Peter, Luxembourgish: Schwaarze Péiter, Indonesian: Pit Hitam)
is the companion of
Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas, Luxembourgish:
Kleeschen, Indonesian: Sinterklas) in the folklore of the Low
Countries. The character first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam
schoolteacher Jan Schenkman. Traditionally,
Zwarte Piet is said to be
black because he is a Moor from Spain. Those portraying Zwarte Piet
typically put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire,
in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. In recent
years, the character has become the subject of controversy, especially
in the Netherlands.
2.2 Development and depiction in the 19th and 20th centuries
2.3 Late 20th and 21st century
3 See also
5 External links
Zwarte Piet character is part of the annual feast of St. Nicholas,
celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaasavond, that is,
St. Nicholas' Eve) in the Netherlands, Aruba, and Curaçao, and on 6
December in Belgium, when presents and accompanying sweets are
distributed to children. The characters of Zwarte Pieten appear
only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas's feast, first when the saint
is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by
boat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain). The tasks of the Zwarte
Pieten are mostly to amuse children, and to scatter kruidnoten,
pepernoten, and Strooigoed (special
Sinterklaas sweets) for those who
come to meet the saint as he visits schools, stores, and other places.
Strooigoed and kruidnoten mix for scattering
According to Hélène Adeline Guerber and others, the origin of
Sinterklaas and his helpers has been linked by some to the Wild Hunt
of Odin. Riding the white horse
Sleipnir he flew through the air as
the leader of the Wild Hunt. He was always accompanied by two black
ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These helpers would listen, just like
Zwarte Piet, at the chimney, which was just a hole in the roof at that
time, to tell
Odin about the good and bad behavior of the mortals
Due to its speculative character, however, this older "Germanic
theory" has little support among present-day scholars, although it
continues to be popular in non-scholarly sources. At
the same time, it seems clear that the
Saint Nicholas tradition
contains a number of elements that are not ecclesiastical in
Illustration from Jan Schenkman's book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht
In medieval iconography,
Saint Nicholas is sometimes presented as
taming a chained devil, who may or may not be black. Although no hint
of a companion, devil, servant, or any other human or human-like fixed
companion to the Saint is found in visual and textual sources from the
Netherlands from the 16th until the 19th century, According to a
long-standing theory first proposed by Karl Meisen, Zwarte Piet
and his equivalents in Germanic Europe originally represented such an
enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor. This chained and
fire-scorched devil may have re-emerged as a black human in the early
19th-century Netherlands, in the likeness of a Moor and as a servant
of Saint Nicholas.[not in citation given] A devil as a helper of
the saint can still be found in the Austrian, German, Swiss,
Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Polish
Saint Nicholas tradition, in the
character of Krampus.
The introduction of
Zwarte Piet did coincide, by and large, with a
change in the attitude of the already existing
who had been quite severe towards bad children himself, and had in
fact often been presented as a bogeyman when he was still a solitary
character; moreover, some of the same terrifying characteristics
that were later associated with his servant
Zwarte Piet were often
Saint Nicholas himself. The depiction of a holy man
in this light was troubling to both teachers and priests. Some time
after the introduction of
Zwarte Piet as Sinterklaas' servant, both
characters adopted a softer character.
The lyrics of older traditional
Sinterklaas songs, still sung today,
warn that while
Sinterklaas and his assistant will leave well-behaved
children presents, they will punish those who have been very naughty.
For example, they will take bad children and carry these children off
in a burlap sack to their homeland of Spain, where, according to
Sinterklaas and his helper dwell out of season. These songs
and stories also warn that a child who has been only slightly naughty
will not get a present, but a "roe", which is a bundle of birch twigs,
implying that they could have gotten a birching instead, or they will
simply receive a lump of coal instead of gifts.
Development and depiction in the 19th and 20th centuries
In 1850, Amsterdam-based primary school teacher Jan Schenkman
published the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht ("
Saint Nicholas and
his Servant"), the first time that a servant character is introduced
in a printed version of the
Saint Nicholas narrative. The servant is
depicted as a page, who appears as a dark person wearing clothes
associated with Moors. The book also established another mythos that
would become standard: the intocht or "entry" ceremony of Saint
Nicholas and his servant (then still nameless) involving a steamboat.
Schenkman has the two characters arrive from Spain, with no reference
made to Nicholas' historical see of
Myra (Lycia, modern-day Turkey).
In the 1850 version of Schenkman's book, the servant is depicted in
simple white clothing with red piping. Starting with the second
edition in 1858, the page is shown in a much more colorful page
costume reminiscent of the Spanish fashion of earlier days, looking
much the same as he does at present.
The book stayed in print until 1950 and has had considerable influence
on the current celebration. Although in Schenkman's book the
servant was nameless,
Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm
Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm already made
reference to a dialogue partner of
Saint Nicholas with the name
"Pieter-me-knecht" in a handwritten note to E.J. Potgieter in
1850. Moreover, writing in 1884, Alberdingk Thijm remembered that
in 1828, as a child, he had attended a
Saint Nicholas celebration in
the house of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant and consul living in
Amsterdam. On this occasion
Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by
"Pieter me Knecht ..., a frizzy haired Negro", who, rather than a rod,
wore a large basket filled with presents.
In 1833, an Amsterdam-based magazine made humorous reference to
"Pietermanknecht" in describing the fate that those who had sneaked
out of their houses to attend that year's St. Nicholas celebrations
were supposed to have met upon their return home. In 1859, Dutch
newspaper De Tijd noticed that
Saint Nicholas nowadays was often
accompanied by "a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht,
is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself". In the 1891 book
Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the servant is named Pieter. Until 1920
there were several books giving him other names, and in
contemporaneous appearances the name and looks still varied
According to a story from the Legenda Aurea, retold by Eelco Verwijs
in his monograph
Sinterklaas (1863), one of the miraculous deeds
Saint Nicholas after his death consisted of freeing a boy
from slavery at the court of the "Emperor of Babylon" and delivering
him back to his parents. No mention is made of the boy's skin
colour. However, in the course of the 20th century, narratives started
to surface in which
Zwarte Piet was considered a former slave who had
been freed by the saint and subsequently had become his lifelong
According to another popular explanation that came to prominence in
the later decades of the 20th century,
Zwarte Piet is a Spaniard, or
an Italian chimney sweep, whose blackness is due to a permanent layer
of soot on his body, acquired during his many trips through the
Late 20th and 21st century
Josephine Baker meeting
Zwarte Piet (V&D
Amsterdam, 22 November 1957)
Head Piet carrying the Boek van
Sinterklaas on the way from the
Steamboat to the City Hall, where they will be officially welcomed by
the City Mayor (
Due to the character's depiction, which typically involves actors and
volunteers covering their skin in black makeup, wearing black wigs and
large earrings, the traditions surrounding
Zwarte Piet became
increasingly controversial beginning in the late 20th century.
Though a large majority of the overall populace in both the
Netherlands and Belgium is in favor of retaining the traditional
Zwarte Piet character, studies have shown that the
Zwarte Piet can differ greatly among different ethnic
backgrounds, age groups and regions. Outside of the Netherlands,
the character has received criticism from a wide variety of
international publications and news organizations. Among
others, American essayist
David Sedaris has written about the
tradition. and British comedian
Russell Brand has spoken
negatively of it, the latter dubbing
Zwarte Piet "a colonial
Demonstrators at an anti-
Zwarte Piet protest in
Amsterdam in November
A golden-skinned Piet from the 2015 holiday season
Nevertheless, according to a 2013 survey, upwards of 90% of the Dutch
public don't perceive
Zwarte Piet to be a racist character or
associate him with slavery and are opposed to altering the character's
appearance. This correlates to a 2015 study among Dutch children
aged 3–7 which showed that they perceive
Zwarte Piet to be a
fantastical clownish figure rather than a black person. However,
the number of Dutch people who are willing to change certain details
of the character (for example his lips and hair) is reported to be
Opposition to the figure is mostly found in the most urbanized
provinces of North- and South Holland, where between 9% and 7% of the
populace wants to change the appearance of Zwarte Piet. In Amsterdam,
most opposition towards the character is found among the Ghanaian,
Antillean and Dutch-Surinamese communities, with 50% of the Surinamese
considering the figure to be discriminatory to others, whereas 27%
consider the figure to be discriminatory towards themselves. The
predominance of the Dutch black community among those who oppose the
Zwarte Piet character is also visible among the main anti-Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet Niet and
Zwarte Piet is Racisme which have
established themselves since the 2010s. Generally, adherents of these
Zwarte Piet to be part of the Dutch colonial heritage,
in which black people were subservient to whites and/or are opposed to
what they consider stereotypical black ("Black Sambo") features of the
figure, such as bright red lips, curly hair and large golden
The public debate surrounding the figure can be described as
polarized, with some protesters considering the figure to be an insult
to their ancestry and supporters considering the character to be an
inseparable part of their cultural heritage. Recent years have
seen a number of incidents in which anti-
Zwarte Piet demonstrators
have been arrested by the police for disturbing the peace, as well as
threats being made towards prominent figures in the anti-Zwarte Piet
movement by supporters of the character.
Meanwhile, schools and businesses across the Netherlands have begun
changing Zwarte Piet's clothing and makeup or phasing the character
out entirely. In 2015, the Bijenkorf department store chain opted to
replace holiday displays featuring
Zwarte Piet with a golden-skinned
version instead. Elsewhere, one in three Dutch primary schools
announced plans to alter the character's appearance in their
celebrations. Nickelodeon in the Netherlands also decided to use a
racially-mixed group of actors to portray Piet in their holiday
broadcasts instead of people in blackface.
RTL Nederland made a
similar decision in the autumn of 2016 and replaced the character with
actors with soot on their faces.
^ Forbes, Bruce David (2007). Christmas: A Candid History. University
of California Press.
Sinterklaas traditions in the Netherlands".
^ Door Ernie Ramaker (3 December 2011). "Wat heeft
Germaanse mythologie te maken?" (in Dutch). Historianet.nl. Retrieved
18 November 2013.
Christmas Origins". Arthuriana.co.uk. Retrieved 18
^ Hélène Adeline Guerber (d. 1929). "huginn and muninn "Myths of the
Norsemen" from". gutenberg.org. Retrieved 26 November 2012. CS1
maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
^ Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte
piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in Dutch). Retrieved 29 November
2007. Almekinders, Jaap (2005). "Wodan en de oorsprong van het
Sinterklaasfeest (Wodan and the origin of Saint Nicolas' festivity)"
(in Dutch). Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 28
November 2011. Christina, Carlijn (2006). "St. Nicolas and the
tradition of celebrating his birthday". Retrieved 28 November
^ "Artikel: sinterklaas and Germanic mythology" (in Dutch).
historianet.nl. 3 December 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2012.
^ "Piet en Sint - veelgestelde vragen". Meertens Instituut. Retrieved
19 November 2013.
^ a b c "
Sinterklaas rituelen en tradities". jefdejager.nl. Retrieved
19 November 2013.
^ E. Boer-Dirks, "Nieuw licht op Zwarte Piet. Een kunsthistorisch
antwoord op de vraag naar de herkomst", Volkskundig Bulletin, 19
(1993), pp. 1-35; 2-4, 10, 14.
^ In Nikolauskult und Nikolausbrauch im Abendlande: Eine
kultgeographisch-volkskundliche Untersuchung (Düsseldorf, 1931).
^ "Jan Schenkman" (in Dutch). dbnl.nl. Retrieved 28 November
^ For example: J. ter Gouw, in De volksvermaken (Haarlem, 1871), p.
256, describes an ancient tradition of "Zwarte Klazen" in Amsterdam;
A.B. van Meerten, in Reisje door het Koningrijk der Nederlanden en het
Groot-Hertogdom Luxemburg, voor kinderen (Amsterdam, 1827), describes
a (fictional?) St. Nicholas celebration in which the Saint appears
"with a black face ... with a whip and a rod in his hands"; and in De
Nederlandsche Kindervriend, in gedichtjes voor de welopgevoede jeugd
(Amsterdam, 1829), pp. 72-74, "Sinterklaas" is referred to as "a black
man" who was said to descend down the chimney "with a great noise of
chains" which he used for fettering naughty children. Respondents to a
1943 survey of the Meertens Instituut wrote that they had known Saint
Nicholas "as a bishop or as a black man with a chain on his foot" and
"in the shape of a black man. The bishop was unknown in my youth" (J.
Helsloot, "Sich verkleiden in der niederländischen Festkultur. Der
Fall des 'Zwarte Piet'", Rheinisches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde 26
(2005/2006), pp. 137-153; 141).
^ Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte
piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in Dutch). Retrieved 29 November
^ ""St Nicholas en zijn knecht" by Jan Schenkman". Librivox.org. 12
October 2010. Retrieved 26 November 2012.
^ van Duinkerken, A. (5 December 1931). "Sint Niklaasgoed 1850 (Een
surprise van Thijm aan Potgieter)". De Tĳd. pp. 21–22.
^ "Zij echter, die ter sluik op het St. Nicolaas feest hadden
rondgewandeld, vonden, te huis komende, de Pietermanknecht te hunnent;
de zoons in hunne vaders, de mannen in hunnen vrouwen en de
dienstmeisjes in hunne gebiedsters." ("St. Nikolaas", De Arke Noach's,
7, 10 (December 1833), pp. 294-299; p. 296)
^ Helsloot, J. (November 2011). "De oudst bekende naam van Zwarte
Piet: Pieter-mê-knecht (1850)". Digitale nieuwsbrief Meertens
^ Eelco Verwijs,
Sinterklaas (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1863), p.
13. The slave is a young Alexandrian named Adeodatus.
^ See, for instance, the story of the Ethiopian slave "Piter" in Anton
van Duinkerken, "De Geschiedenis van Sinterklaas", De Tijd, 21
November 1947, p. 3; "Sint Nicolaas bevrijdde een slaaf. Uit
dankbaarheid ging deze vrijwillig de Sint dienen; hij heet Zwarte
Piet", De Nieuwsgier, 3 December 1954, p. 3; and also, from a slightly
different angle, Puck Volmer, "Hoe
Zwarte Piet het knechtje van
Sinterklaas werd", De Indische Courant, 29 November 1941, p. 19.
^ Blakely, Allison (2001). Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of
Racial Imagery in a Modern Society. Indiana University Press.
pp. 48–49. ISBN 9780253214331.
^ "Onderzoek RTL Nieuws:
Zwarte Piet moet zwart blijven". RTL Nieuws.
Retrieved 6 December 2015.
^ In a poll of RTL Nieuws, 81% only supported a solely black Zwarte
Piet with an additional 10% supporting a majority of Zwarte Piets with
a few soot-covered ones.
^ A 2015 inquiry by the national newspaper
Algemeen Dagblad showed
that in the overwhelming majority of Dutch municipalities, no changes
would be made to the traditional appearance of the Zwarte Piet
character. Only 6% of the municipalities approached mentioned (further
unspecified) changes to the character.
^ A 2013 inquiry by Dutch public news program EenVandaag showed that
in every Dutch province, the overwhelming majority did not support
changes in the
Zwarte Piet characters appearance. The largest
percentage in support of changing the characters appearance (9%) was
found in North-Holland.
^ In a 2012 study by the municipality of Amsterdam, shows that
majority of respondents do not consider the
Zwarte Piet character to
be racist or that the character is racists towards others, but this
differs greatly when comparing ethnic groups.
^ Emma Thomas (24 October 2013). "Outrage in Netherlands over calls to
abolish 'Black Pete' clowns which march in
Christmas parade dressed in
blackface". Daily Mail. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
^ Felicity Morse. "Zwarte Piet: Opposition Grows To 'Racist Black
Pete' Dutch Tradition". UK: Huffington Post. Retrieved 27 October
^ "Don't They Know It's
Christmas After All". This American Life.
Retrieved 7 December 2001.
^ "Russel Brand Over Zwarte Piet". De Morgen. Retrieved 17 November
^ "VN wil einde Sinterklaasfeest - Binnenland Het laatste nieuws uit
Nederland leest u op Telegraaf.nl [binnenland]". Telegraaf.nl. 22
October 2013. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
^ 2015 enquiry shows children perceive
Zwarte Piet as a clown rather
than black. NRC Handelsblad 3 December 2015.
^ a b "Cookies op Trouw.nl". trouw.nl. Retrieved 6 December
^ "Black Pete: Cheese-Face to Partially Replace Blackface During Dutch
Festivities". The Independent. 15 October 2014. Retrieved 12 December
^ 2013 study by the
Amsterdam municipality among its various ethnic
groups concerning the character of Zwarte Piet.
^ "De argumenten voor
Zwarte Piet zijn op". HP/De Tijd. Retrieved 6
^ "Ninety arrested during 'Black Pete' protests at Dutch kids' fete".
Yahoo News. 16 November 2014. Archived from the original on 29
November 2014. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
Zwarte Piet blijft in België gewoon Zwarte Piet".
^ "Zwarte Pieten in Bijenkorf worden goud". RTL. 10 August 2015.
Retrieved 3 December 2015.
^ "Hema Reportedly Phasing Out Zwarte Piet". DutchNews. 26 August
2014. Retrieved 2 September 2014.
^ "Nickelodeon presenteert ongeschminkte pieten". NRC. 4 November
2015. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
^ "RTL stopt met Zwarte Piet, voortaan alleen pieten met roetvegen".
RTL. 24 October 2016. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Zwarte Piet.
"Dutch debate Sinterklaas' Zwarte Piet" by Caroline Nelissen
"Six to Eight Black Men" by David Sedaris
 Why blackface is still part of Dutch Christmas
Saint Nicholas Day
St. Stephen's Day
Adoration of the Magi
Adoration of the Shepherds
Annunciation to the shepherds
Baptism of the Lord
Herod the Great
Massacre of the Innocents
flight into Egypt
Nativity of Jesus
in later culture
Star of Bethlehem
Old Man Winter
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Tió de Nadal
Christmas gift-bringers by country
Boar's Head Feast
Carols by Candlelight
Cavalcade of Magi
Events and celebrations
Feast of the Seven Fishes
Google Santa Tracker
Lord of Misrule
Meals and feasts
Nine Lessons and Carols
NORAD Tracks Santa
Australia and New Zealand
Hit singles UK
Hit singles US
Carols for Choirs
The Oxford Book of Carols
The New Oxford Book of Carols
"Old Santeclaus with Much Delight"
"A Visit from St. Nicholas"
Black Friday (partying)
Black Friday (shopping)
Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004
Puritan New England
American Civil War
Post-War United States
Running of the Santas
Santa's Candy Castle
Small Business Saturday
WWE Tribute to the Troops
bûche de Noël
Rosca de reyes