The Zwarte Piet character is part of the annual Feast of St. Nicholas that is celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaasavond, which is known as St. Nicholas’ Eve in English) in the Netherlands, Aruba, and Curaçao. This is when presents and sweets are traditionally distributed to children. The holiday is celebrated on 6 December in Belgium. The Zwarte Piet characters appear only in the weeks before the Feast of Saint Nicholas, 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 various Black Petes (Zwarte Pieten in Dutch) are mostly to amuse children and to distribute kruidnoten, pepernoten, and other strooigoed (special Sinterklaas-themed sweets) to those who come to meet the saint as he visits schools, stores, and other places.
Enter the modern day Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Leading up to W.W.II, Black Pete’s job was to investigate which children had been “bad,” and to take them away in his sack and/or whip them for discipline. Today, the dominating image of Black Pete is more one of entertainment for others’ enjoyment: He helps Sinterklaas deliver the presents and no longer acts as the one who brings punishment to the bad children. But the old task of Black Pete is still referred to in a funny matter. Many parents joke and say “I will tell Black Pete to take you with him to Spain!”. Sinterklaas will ask Black Pete to see ‘The Book’, which lists all the right and wrong things a child did. Over time, Zwarte Piet’s character morphed into a group of Black Petes; all considered a Zwarte Piet, but each with different characteristics.
The Black Pete actors paint their faces black with red lips, wear a curly wig and a Moorish dress. “They are portrayed as young, and agile, and do much running and jumping around and acting like acrobats,” says Leyla Hamidi of the National Bureau Against Racial Discrimination. Sinterklaas is portrayed as old, wise, mature, calm, and in control. In celebrations and the media, Black Pete is overwhelmingly viewed by children and adults as funny and clownish. These and other characteristics were found to be typical characteristics of Black Pete as well as black characters in general in Dutch children’s books.
The speculations about this figure are varied as well. In 1850 Jan Schenkman wrote a children’s book called ‘Saint Nicholas and His Servant’. There is no name given to this “servant.” He is simply referred to as such. Some claim that the portrait of the servant is inspired by the representations of the Moors in portrait art of the 17th and 18th century. Some speculate that he descends from Piter, an Ethiopian slave who is said to have been bought and set free by St. Nicholas. Schenkman’s book was very popular with the public. The concept of this black servant was taken over by other writers of Sinterklaas stories. We find the name ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) for the first time in a children’s book of 1891.
Usually, organizations that ban Zwarte Piet change the character’s image instead of getting rid of him completely. In Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade, Zwarte Piet has become Schoorsteen Piet, or “Chimney Pete,” who has soot on his face and a different outfit. This “solution” isn’t satisfying to all anti-Piet activists, but some are just happy to get rid of blackface paint and wigs that appear in most parades.
Some claim that Black Pete’s character is racist and acts as a means of racial stereotyping. But what is stereotyping? Oxford Dictionary states: “a fixed idea or image that many people have of a particular type of person or thing, but which is often not true in reality.” The painted actors who play Black Pete do no such thing. In actuality, they act clownish and funny—all WITHOUT racial stereotyping. They act the way white people would when desperately trying to make others laugh and have a good time. Yet, people can’t help but look for new things that offend them and throw a fit about those things.
“The Dutch tend to argue that Black Pete is a Dutch thing, and other people outside the Netherlands don’t understand our culture,” says Mitchell Esajas, co-founder of New Urban Collective and Kick Out Zwarte Piet. “But it is part of an international tradition of racial stereotyping.” November 2018, an article in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf accused Esajas of being funded by George Soros—an anti-Semitic America hating former Nazi. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Soros was behind the Black Pete discussion, seeing he funds all racist hate groups.