Blackface ‘Black Peter’, the Dutch Darling of Christmas

Move over Santa’s elves, make room for Black Peter, Santa Claus‘s trusty African helper who  keeps a book with names of naughty children while toting a rod and knapsack to throw bad kids in. He’s a beloved little fella created by the Dutch in the 1840’s. Citizens in the Netherlands bring holiday cheer by dressing up as Black Peter, complete with black face, kinky wig and whimsical outfit.

 

Many Dutch citizens say Black Pete‘s face is black from sliding down soot laden chimneys. But others admit Black Peter promotes negative stereotypes.They want Black Peter to go away.

Organizers of New Westminster‘s Dutch Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) celebrations in Canada pulled Black Peter from their traditional parade due to protests from the public including the African-Canadian community who considered Santa’s little helper racist, offensive, and outdated.

In books, Black Peter is depicted as a dumb, belligerent slave who beats children. In German folklore, Black Peter is Krampus, the Black Devil who drags naughty children to Hell.

As an African-American, I’m still amazed by the lingering images that promote negative propaganda against the Black people of the world. Black Peter is just one of many.

Do you think Black Peter is negative or a harmless character who promotes Christmas cheer?

12 comments

  1. bronzevillebud

    I find it disturbing that all things evil are portrayed as “black”. This is no exception. Were it not for the references to “Black Pete” as an evil slave or mean elf who drags kids away, I might be less offended. I also have to wonder why would the Dutch people want to scare the bejeezes out of their little children by parading around like evil elves?

    • Onrust

      I’m from the Netherlands and this is so far from the truth, you wouldn’t even imagine.. First things first, the Dutch Sinterklaas is the actual origin of the American Santa Claus. This is history and it is the truth. Sinterklaar was actually called Sint Nicolas and lived in Spain. He was a Spanish bishop (or something like that) from the Catholic church, during the time that Spain occupied the Netherlands. One’s a year he came to the Netherlands to bring presents to our country (and punish bad children), why I am not sure but probably to educate the children here or something. Zwarte Piet (the helpers) probably would have been black people at the time, yes. True, they might even have been slaves. This was just how things went down at that time and we cannot change that unfortunately. However, nowadays the figure Zwarte Piet is what brings the children joy and happiness one time a year. It’s a celebration. The link to (possibly, not even sure it was) to slavery is completely lost with the holiday, and frankly the white people that are face painting do not even resemble black people at all if you look at it objectively. Zwarte Pieten are a symbol of joy and happiness now. If bad things did happen to black people in the name of Sinterklaas, then it is very regrettable. Still, those activities hold no ties anymore to what is happening now during the time we celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas and their lovely Zwarte Pieten. Taking away the Zwarte Pieten would be taking away the joys of a tradition. No more presents for children, like stealing candy from a baby. Also adopting Santa Claus instead is not an argument as you cannot force a tradition on a society that grew up with different iconic figures. So now you know a little bit more.

  2. Stephen Reginald

    Since I’m not Dutch and don’t know the complete history, it’s hard to know what the real story is. However, what you’ve depicted here looks like it’s a tradition that should go away. Unfortunately, there are probably generations of Dutch folk who have no idea of the real history behind the character and think of it as harmless. It could be a wonderful opportunity to open up a dialogue between the races, but I fear it will just be a time for each respective group to point fingers and dig in deeper. Some racism is ignorance; it isn’t always mean-spirited. We need to talk about these issues openly and honestly and Edye, your piece helps with that.

  3. Cass

    Wow, pretty disturbing. It’s sad that in this day and age these negative stereotypes still exist on the planet. I don’t know the history behind this tradition but it should be discarded. It certainly seems to promote the idea that black people are inherently evil. We’re long overdue for a honest discussion about stereotypes and influence.

  4. oj

    its sweet 🙂 Too funny! Lifes too short don’t sweat the small things. Of all the things wrong with the world this is pretty minor. Merry Christmas!

  5. Alexander Kenter

    Okay, I’m Dutch – and obviously none of the above have a clue as to what is going on here… First of all, both Sinterklaas and Santa Claus are likely one and the same figure. Except, in the Netherlands, there’s also a Santa Claus, known as Kerstman (Christ((mas))-man). Sinterklaas is celebrated early in December, at the 5th. Xmas with Santa is, understandably, celebrated at December 25th.

    Santa is recently novel in the Netherlands, something from, say, the last 25 – 30 years. Before that, there was only Sinterklaas on the 5th en Xmas (Santa-less, but with the Christ and the kings and the angels and all) on the 25th.

    As for ‘Black Pete’: he is considered evil by no-one. In fact, one of the Sinterklaas-carols has a line in it that says (after wondering who’s that knocking at the door) ‘relax, my child, I’m a good friend, even though I’m black as soot, my intentions are well’ Now, I understand this may strike you as racist. Again, in comes the background of the story. Up until the 1950’s, coloured people were a rarity in the Netherlands, so the carol, that goes back to way before that time, merely shushes children who might get scared of suddenly seeing something so alien as a black person.

    Black Pete, as well as Sinterklaas, are considered the greatest of children’s friends. They come to bring presents, for Pete’s sake! These days, there is no more mention of being taken to Spain (where he comes from) if you’ve been naughty rather than nice, except in the proverbial sense. Even young children know you won’t be taken to Spain for having been bad, since that would be a good thing. And you don’t get rewarded for being bad.

    So, all in all, there’s no harm intended, and only found by those who seek it. Santa has his elves (and why are midgets less discriminated against that coloured people?) and Sinterklaas has his Petes. As for Christmas cheer – not with these guys, they’re traditionally long gone by the time Xmas arrives (the boat back to Spain with on it Sinterklaas and countless Black Petes always leaves on December 6th.).

    But, yeah, they’re definitely part of December-cheer, and nobody ever takes offense – all except a very limited few who are willing to take offense at anything.

    • eldhughes

      Hi Alexander, Thank you for your enlightening response to my article. I know for many people who celebrate Black Pete, they mean no harm. And that he is meant to be a positive character. But for centuries, Black people throughout the world have been insulted by blatantly offensive and “benign” characters created by whites, who think it’s all in just fun and good spirit; without thinking or caring about how black people feel about it. Would you ever name a character White Pete? I would think not. That might never occur to you because “white” is the norm from which all skin differences are compared and judged -(at least it seems, to white people). Even the carol’s lyrics “…relax, my child, I’m a good friend, even though I’m black as soot, my intentions are well’”, is very demeaning. Black people don’t compare their skin to soot. Our darkness is more beautiful than ash or dirt. Also the song connotes that his black color is scary to little white kids (which would probably be true) but don’t be afraid because Black Pete is a good little helper. That’s offensive as well. Alexander, I don’t seek harm or try to find racism. But if something offends me, harm and racism seeks me. That’s why black people in Canada complained about it. And probably why Black Pete is not well known in America. Black folks in the U.S. aren’t having it. Look at African-American History; the black minstrals, Bert Williams, Al Jolsen, etc. in the 19th and early 20th century. You’ll understand why. I may do a post about that one day. Again, thank you so much for taking an interest in my post. I hope you subscribe to my page. I think honest dialog helps us understand our worlds better.

  6. paul van dijck

    First this has nothing to do with Santa Claus and Chtistmas. Santa is an invention of Coca Cola (also black – is that a problem) Company and is related to decamber 25. Sinterklaas is a Western Europe holiday on december 6. The origin is a saga of a saint (bishop) who saved children from death. Zwarte Piet (Black peter) was his helper and has nothing to do with discrimination. Therefor he became a childrens hero.

    I don’t see why canadians or americans need to bother about a saga that is not part of there history, do the bother about stories that lives in other cultures?

  7. Hank Venture

    i’m offended you say that Black Peter is the Krampus. the Krampus origins date back much further than black peter. suggesting that they are the same tells me you made a grave assumption.

    the first story of black peter i read was that he was santa’s brother and was covered in coal soot. however that article has seemed to disappear from wikipedia.

    on to the blackface issue. can’t say i like what they’re doing. but it’s not our place to tell a nation of people to stop one of their traditions.

    to Paul: santa is not an invention of coca cola you moron! santa is the great god Odin. who was later co opted by the church.

  8. freddie mckenna

    http://snideties.blogspot.com/2011/12/ho-ho-horrors.html

    Just blogged about Krampus. He seems very different from Black Peter. I don’t agree with Hank re: people’s traditions. There are all kinds of grotesque traditions all over the world that people could live a lot better without. Like excision, public executions, the Indian caste system, or forcing women to walk around in black tents. Before the Civil War broke out, slavery was a “tradition” in the South, at least I suspect that’s how the slaveowners viewed it. European societies are becoming as diverse as the US and with that must come a heightened cultural sensitivity. It’s not our place to tell the Dutch to can the black face shenanigans, but I really hope they phase this out, pronto.

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