Christmas in the Netherlands: a Canadian meets Zwarte Piet

It’s not a sub movement. As long as I can remember the “Pieten” have been black because they go down chimneys to deliver the gifts to children. So for example my letter to Sinterklaas which would have been handled by a Piet would have sort marks on it in the morning. It’s a folkloristic way of explaining the originally exotic black people to children akin to creation myths that have black people created by god leaving the clay in the fire for too long. Childish naiveté.

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Except that Zwarte Piet was created in the 1850’s, long after slavery ended over here. He was a domestic originally. You’re looking at it through American eyes. Black person worker, so slave. In the Benelux it was just an expression of the exotic country the saint came from.

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Servant yes. That you see a black servant as a slave is your baggage.

That is so wrong. Sinterklaas at a Sint Maarten celebration? Those children will get so confused.

But seriously, I’d love to know how this happened, and why the two got merged.

In Netherland, they are totally different. St Maarten is just one evening where kids go around the neighbourhood with paper lanterns singing songs and collecting candy. To me, it seems to have more in common with American Halloween than with Sinterklaas.

[quote=“Forkboy, post:21, topic:14760”]
It’s a folkloristic way of explaining the originally exotic black people to children akin to creation myths that have black people created by god leaving the clay in the fire for too long.[/quote]

And you don’t see why that kind of thing might be offensive to people with modern-day sensibilities?

“He’s just black because he’s filthy. You know, just like ALL dark-skinned people.”


He’s a page. Also this is a children’s holiday logic doesn’t feature heavily. The man rides A HORSE over the rooftops for god’s sake.

Projecting again. The Pieten run the show you know, they take care of the old man who is hundreds of years old.

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Sure, extremely briefly, at a time when the slave trade was relatively tiny outside of Asia.

“Only in the first half of the 17th century did the Netherlands play an important commercial role in the Altantic economy, but then the slave trade was still in its infancy. Furthermore, during that period Dutch slavers delivered almost exclusively to foreign planters and colonists.” --P. C. Emmer, Chris Emery, “The Dutch Slave Trade, 1500–1850”

“the English, French and Portugese carried infinitely more slaves than the Dutch” – same book, same page (3).

The Black Peter kerfuffle reminds me of the Japanese Penis Festival, which also offends the squares.


As an American living in northern Belgium, I can say I was quite surprised I came across Black Piet. But quite honestly, it really is a matter of context. While there are racist everywhere, there is no racism within this context. Would you consider Santa Clauses’ elves a slave labor force that he deprives of their freedom?! Of course not. They are part of the mythology…“Santa and his helpers”. Same case here. The only difference is the baggage you bring with you from another culture. I know I had to set mine down and realize I was seeing things through the glasses of a very messed up American history. I for one would like to see it stay. Would you want to see the elves gone because someone from somewhere else thought they equated to slaves?


maybe if i were an elf

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I don’t know. It’s very local here and probably got homoginized. Frankly I didn’t know it existed until a colleague from around Aalst told me. There’s a lot of these begging festivals most of which have disappeared. We used to go singing for candy on New Years and there’s places where they do the same on Driekoningen.

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Wow . . . no mention of David Sedaris’ hilarious monologue, “Six to Eight Black Men?”

One of Sedaris’ best pieces, perhaps second to the one where his French as a Second Language course discuss who dispenses candy at Easter.


I lived in Amsterdam for several months, (including the whole xmas season), and I didn’t see or hear a thing about this custom. I saw (and met) alot of ‘black’ people though. Granted I was living in an area where traditions appeared to have gone out the window a while back.

In all the discussions about the origin of Zwarte Piet, I still haven’t heard of any source that mentioned him being a slave. It’s always a helper, servant, assistant, or man-servant.

And the story about it being soot, while clearly at odds with his bright clothes, is still an old and established one. Less solid than him being either Moorish or simply exotic for the sake of being exotic, but it’s not a recent invention either. It’s still part of his mixed-up and confused history.

Obvious solution: Dress up the helpers in silver or gold android makeup.

Robots LOVE being property and will never rebel or resent their lives of tedious servitude.


In the footnotes with that precise link! You read all the footnotes, right? There’s a test later.

So you admit, in saying that it’s ‘just’ soot, that the sootiness is linked to racists attitudes towards black people. The naivete in those stories may be childish, but it’s far from harmful. At the very least, such just-so-stories posit that white humanity is the default version of humanity, and other variants occur via accidents and mishaps such as burning and soot-smearing. At the most, they encourage a connotation of blackness with dirtiness, and, in the Swarte Piet story, with servanthood. Even if you deny the ‘worst’ possible semantic outcome as ‘American baggage’ even the least problematic outcome is still totally noxious and horrible.

If soot is really the main factor here, then change up Swarte Piet to be more of a Knect Ruprecht figure - an obviously sooty sidekick, and not a clownish caricature of a Moorish servant.


That’s not racism. There’s no prejudice, it’s just folklore. (edit: as in other cultures, see below)

1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2: racial prejudice or discrimination

The devaluation of the word racist really irks me. Something isn’t racist because someone might take offence.

EDIT: According to your theory native american are racists who think white and black people are just failed experiments. Or maybe they’re just stories.

A Potawatomi Story

 	 Earthmaker made the world with trees and fields, with rivers, lakes, and springs, and with hills and valleys. It was beautiful. However, there weren't any humans, and so one day he decided to make some.
 	He scooped out a hole in a stream bank and lined the hole with stones to make a hearth, and he built a fire there. Then he took some clay and made a small figure that he put in the hearth. While it baked, he took some twigs and made tongs. When he pulled the figure out of the fire and had let it cool, he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. Earthmaker nonetheless realized that it was only half-baked. That figure became the white people.
 	Earthmaker decided to try again, and so he made another figure and put it on the hearth. This time he took a nap under a tree while the figure baked, and he slept longer than he intended. When he pulled the second figure out of the fire and had let it cool, he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. Earthmaker realized that this figure was overbaked, and it became the black people.
 	Earthmaker decided to try one more time. He cleaned the ashes out of the hearth and built a new fire. Then he scooped up some clay and cleaned it of any twigs or leaves, so that it was pure. He made a little figure and put it on the hearth, and this time he sat by the hearth and watched carefully as the figure baked. When this figure was done, he pulled it out of the fire and let it cool. Then he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. This figure was baked just right, and it became the red people.

Hah! I skipped to the comments and did a text search for Sedaris. If I’d done that in the article page I would have discovered the footnotes.

Don’t you guys have Thanksgiving pageants where children dress up as Native Americans (Indian blackface) and act out a whitewash of history that ignores the slavery, smallpox blankets, winter death marches, etc. ? I’m sure some people might find that offensive, probably not many of them left though. Why fill kids malleable minds with these lies ? Better just scrap it.

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Native Americans: So many things here. First, native Americans were almost always depicted as a) already here, b) welcoming “us” (my family came in 1900 or so), c) as noble savages (primitive but tractable and with nobility that made them admirable along the Greek Spartan model). Second, portrayal has changed a lot in the last few decades. There are, you know, Native American children and adults who portray themselves in pageants. The understanding of the Pilgrims (“Saints,” in their name for themselves) has changed quite a lot, as has that of Christopher Columbus. In a lot of schools, including the ones my boys attend, there’s a much more complicated and nuanced discussion of this. Nobody puts on war paint (which wasn’t appropriate for Thanksgiving anyway) and minces around pretending to speak “heap good English” and acts like a buffoon.

Whitewash of history: I’m sure most Americans don’t know or acknowledge this, but it’s widely taught. I learned it in school in a small town in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, you say the Zwarte Pieten aren’t depictions of black people at all. That’s really not supported by history nor practice. There’s a really good article I just found that is written by a Dutch person who is very evenhanded, and he acknowledges the general problem: that Dutch don’t see this as racist because to them, it’s not racist. They aren’t making fun of another race. It’s just, you know, Black Pete! He dives into the history a bit and the transformation.

The trouble is that people who are not racist but engage in a practice that uses a caricature of a specific race or ethnicity are engaging in denigrating behavior, even if they don’t feel it. The subjects do. I’m Jewish. There is a long history in may countries of using Jewish-styled characters (hook nosed, avaricious, sneering, etc.) in passion plays and celebrations. Those have mostly faded out because of the understanding that even without the intent to make the Jew into an “other” who isn’t necessarily (though often can be) a bit of ethnic violence, the reality is that if the “other” is there, he or she is rejected from society because of the portrayal, whether that’s intended or not.

20% of the Dutch population is of color.