Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution
Background and Development
Jan Schenkman's book, Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht [Saint Nicholas and his Servant], (1850), has been credited with establishing and bringing uniformity to Dutch Sinterklaas traditions that go back to the 15th century. The book reflected then-familiar elements, such as riding a horse, giving gifts through chimneys and coming from Spain. It introduced bringing Sinterklaas on a steamer and, perhaps most significantly, accompanied by one black-skinned servant, commonly interpreted to be a Moor. This servant did not have a name. Rhymes from the book are still sung as popular Sinterklaas songs, such as Zie ginds komt de stoomboot.
The book fit well into the times with its strongly didactic emphasis. Sint Nicolaas interrogated children about their behavior and religious catechism. Naughty children were punished with switches and even carried away by the servant in a large jute sack. Good children, of course, were rewarded with treats, sweets, and presents.
Here is zijn Knecht in early editions of Jan Schenkman's book:
Original Edition, Theod.
Bom, ca. 1850
J. Vlieger edition,
P. van Geldorp illustration,
Vlieger edition, ca. 1907
There is some evidence that Sint Nicolaas was sometimes accompanied by a black servant even before Schenkman's book—though this may have been an actual servant, a person of color serving at the time in Amsterdam.
Into the 1900s Sint Nicolaas' servant was known by a variety of names: Trappadoeli, Assiepan, Sabbas, Sjaak Sjoer; or Hans Moef and Nicodemus as in Germany and Flanders; or by usual Dutch servant names Jan and Piet. These continued with Pieter-mijn-knecht being named in a book dedication by Jozef Alberdingk Thijm in 1850 and in the newspaper De Tijd in 1859.
Piet is a very Dutch-sounding name, as is Jan, of course. Piet, however, is linguistically stronger and in the early 20th century being "Dutch" was of high value. Zwarte Piet also had some historical precedence, having being used in a picture book in 1868. The first well-known picture book naming Piet was Van Sinterklaas en Pieterbaas that first came out in 1911.
Van Sinterklaas en Pieterbaas by S. Abramz,
J. G. Kesler, illus.
3rd edition 1926
Sinterklaas Kapoentje illustrated
by Freddie Langeler
In the first half of the 20th century Sinterklaas celebrations became standardized throughout the Netherlands. By the 1920s Piet had become Zwarte Piet and this was recognized everywhere as the name for Sinterklaas' servant. There was just one servant-helper, Zwarte Piet, singular. He was portrayed as dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
Illustration, De Goede Sint, 1929
by Rie Cramer
Illustration from Sint Nicolaas Boek
by Nans van Leeuwen, 1950
Zwarte Piet, the servant or slave, began to get a softer image during the 1950s. His black-face began to be attributed to soot from coming down chimneys, thus attempting to make him more like Knecht Ruprecht in Germany or Schmutzli in Switzerland.
Sinterklaas usually had just one servant, though since the 1920s there were frequently several. until after World War II. Following the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers organizing the celebration wanted lots of help distributing presents; so, many soldiers got dressed up. Then many merry Zwarte Pieten swarmed Amsterdam on December 5, 1946, giving presents and treats to delighted chidren. Canadians have been credited with providing the impetus for the continuation of increasing numbers. Ever since Zwarte Pieten have multiplied and now the Amsterdam arrival has over 600, including many women!
These Zwarte Pieten all dress in 17th century colorful Moorish outfits with curly black Afro wigs, brightly-painted red lips, black gloves and solid blacked faces and other exposed skin.
Popular books illustrate the Pieten; books and illustrations remain in print over many years.
Postcards old and new:
In the late 1960s Zwarte Pieten began shifting away from being primarily about discipline and punishment to providing entertainment. Agile Pieten started performing acrobatic feats, carrying out silly pranks, and, most importantly, were the ones handing out candy and treats. During arrivals, while Sinterklaas rides sedately on his horse, the Pieten toss pepernoten and candy to watching children. This makes them popular, of course, especially with children. Zwarte Pieten were now described as "helpers" or "friends," not as "servants" or "slaves."
With these changes, people said Zwarte Piet's face was black because soot got on it going up and down chimneys delivering presents. However, this did not explain why his face was solid black, he had a curly black Afro-wig and exaggerated red lips. Amazingly, after going down chimneys, getting his face totally blacked, his clothes remained perfectly clean.
The Zwarte Pieten took on other roles, now less ignorant and more responsible: Hoofdpiet, navigation Piet, present-wrapping Piet, pepernoten Piet, etc. Large gold earrings were somewhat less common and wigs still curly, but less coarse.
The first recorded questioning about the role and portrayal of Zwarte Piet was in 1968. A woman named M. C. Grünbauer thought "it no longer appropriate to continue to celebrate our dear old Saint Nicholas feast in its actual form." While slavery had been abolished for over a century, she said, "we continue the tradition of presenting the black man as a slave. The powerful White Master sits on his horse or throne. Pete has to walk or carry the heavy sacks."
Succeeding decades have heard more voices questioning Zwarte Pieten, saying the portrayal is a negative racial stereotype. Each year there would be some such comment, disregarded by the majority and seeming to disappear after the season.
In 2006 Dutch national public broadcaster NTR had multi-colored, rainbow-hued Pieten on the children's program JeugdJournaal. Sinterklaas' steamboat had passed through a rainbow and rainbow hues came off on the Pieten making them pink, purple, green, blue, yellow, orange and so on. The Pieten did not have large red lips and their eyebrows were merely blackened with mascara, showing more natural face. The show also simply referred to Pieten with no Zwarte. Aje Boschhuizen, broadcast editor, said, "Pete is just Sinterklaas' merry helper. His color is unimportant." However, there was a widespread fierce outcry from adults and the rainbow Petes did not return the next year.
By 2006 safety concerns had caused the outdoor Sinterklaas festivities in the Hague's Transvaal section, which is around 85% immigrant, to be moved inside to a sports center. Organizer Joke van Boomen reported aggression threats from the community towards volunteers had increased so much that the consideration was given to ending the event.
In 2008 artists Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss organized a march as part of an exhibition exploring the meaning of Zwarte Piet at the Eindhoven Van Abbemuseum. Following media publicity the museum received hundreds of negative emails, including some serious threats to participants's safety. This led to cancelling the march. After cancellation, people who had never had said anything before about Zwarte Piet reached out to support the artists.
Playwright Mark Walraven, who used to play a black-faced Zwarte Piet, says, "I stopped after I began working with black people. Many people are offended by this symbol. In songs written before World War II, he was often called Sinterklaas' slave, and the texts of many songs and lyrics about him, especially from the 19th century, make it very clear that he was a racist symbol. In the end, Black Pete always comes across as a little stupid, clumsy and one who talks strangely and doesn't speak proper Dutch."
Black children and adults living in the Netherlands report difficult experiences during Sinterklaas season. A black Dutch friend of researcher and journalist Shantje Jagmohansingh was once at a large Sinterklaas party with hundreds of families. She reported that Sinterklaas asked each child what they wanted to be when they grew up. "When he came to me, Sint said he didn't need to ask because, 'You are going to be Zwarte Piet because you've got the color already.'"
"Probably every black person in the Netherlands has been called a “Black Piet” at least once in his or her life. Especially in the weeks prior to December 5. It hurts, it always has and always will," says Marthe van der Wolf. "I never really knew why it made me feel uncomfortable. I grew up as an adopted black child in a white liberal home where I was told colour doesn’t exist. And I believed that. But still, the comment was hurtful at the time. . . . Growing up celebrating Sinterklaas I felt excluded as my face didn’t need to be painted. And as a kid, that hurts. . . . After all these years I have finally figured out why it is distressing to me when referred to as Black Piet. And now that I know, I can’t express this, for I would upset white people’s feelings."
"It is an affront to people of the African Diaspora in the Netherlands, and it is not proper in this age," says Artwell Cain, director of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy.
"It was about six years ago when my mum came home from work and phoned me," says performance artist Quinsy Gario, who was born on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. "On the phone I could hear her trembling. She was upset, livid, and said someone at work, in front of customers, had said, 'We were wondering where our Zwarte Piet was and there you are.'"
After that Gario began including references to racism and Zwarte Piet in his poetry and performances, including making and wearing the Zwarte Piet is Racisme T-shirt. Reaction was strongly encouraging as others requested the T-shirts. Someone else even started a Facebook page for the project.
In 2011, Gario, together with Siri Venning (Danish researcher studying African, Afro-Surinamese and Dutch Caribbean experience of Sinterklaas), Steffe Weber (journalism student covering the entry), and Kno'Ledge Cesare, went to the national Sinterklaas arrival in Dordrecht. They took a banner with the words, "Zwarte Piet is racisme" and "the Netherands can do better." When police told them it could not be used due to a ban on demonstrations, they rolled it up and uncovered their T-shirts. They report that police told them that would be okay. Gario and Cesare stood there, wearing the T-shirts, hoping to start conversation about racial relations in the Netherlands. As they stood peacefully among the crowd, wearing their "Zwarte Piet is racisme" T-shirts, another policeman told Gario to leave. When he asked why, Gario was violently thrown to the ground, held there and repeatedly kneed in the back, dragged away and pepper-sprayed, even though he didn't resist. Police officers arrested him and his three companions. "I spent six and a half hours in a jail cell for freedom of expression," Gario said.
The very next day when Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam, a group of young black men and women were there, wearing T-shirts they had spray-painted with the same Zwarte Piet is racisme slogan. They, too, were arrested for disturbing the peace. Together these actions led to more people requesting the T-shirts.
"We began this project because we [sensed] a want of historical knowledge about the figure of Zwarte Piet," Quinsy Gario explained. It aimed at starting a 'sane dialogue, based on facts.' We don’t say: 'stop celebrating Sinterklaas.' We say: 'study the origin of the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet and ask yourself the question if that is still acceptable in today’s world.'"
Video from The Telegraph
The original video, posted to Facebook and YouTube went viral. The arrest was reported and shown in Italian, Indian, French, Norwegian, and US newspapers and web sites. It was not shown on Dutch television.
As Zwarte Piet protests have grown, Dutch defense of tradition and resistance to change has also increased. "The majority here in Holland refuse to talk about Black Pete," said playwright Walraven. "They are afraid that the people who discuss it want to take away Sinterklaas as a phenomenon." Daily newspaper De Telegraaf responded, "This [Sinterklaas] is nothing more than a simple and innocent children's festival that has been unjustly attacked and from which no one need feel excluded. It has never been proven that the "Black Peter" figure incites discrimination or racism or any kind of negative image of people with dark skins . . . . Black Peters are an integral part of a Dutch custom that has long been one of the country's most important traditions and vital to our national heritage. And these sourpusses can't change that." "These are very old traditions," said politician Jan Pronk, once U.N. envoy to Sudan, "I don't think it's so bad."
However, complaints about Zwarte Piet increased to more than 100 in 2011, the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam reported. They used to receive just one or two a year. Director Jessica Silversmith says, "It's not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining," referring to people descended from the former Dutch colonies that once traded in slavery. "It's all kinds of Dutch people." She continued, "Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist. But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet."
By 2012 the atmosphere was shifting. Zwarte Piet is Racisme, together with other voices, had brought the issue of racism and Zwarte Pieten to the media,. The widely-read GeenStijl (though later claimed to have been satire), Margriet Oostveen in NRC, Jan Postma on hard/hoofd, Bas Heijne and politician Andree van Es, all entered the discussion, calling for change. National television showed a documentary listing arguments against Zwarte Piet.
"I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface,” says Dimitri Tokmetzis, a journalist and the publisher of Dutch news site Sargasso. "On the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues."
Even though dissent is increasing, the tradition has strong support among the majority of Dutch people. So debate continues and changes won't come quickly.
However, some changes have already taken place. Since 2008 Sinterklaas (not just Zwarte Piet) has been unwelcome at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, recognizing that Zwarte Pieten would offend many international travelers. When HEMA brought Sinterklaas to London in 2010, there were no Black Petes. It has been reported that retail chain Albert Heijn and biscuit-baker Bolletje no longer include such images. Blokker and V&D retail chains are showing kids with ash-smudged cheeks in their catalogs, rather than black-face. Some schools and other places are using Regenboog Pieten (rainbow Petes) and other non-blackface helpers.
Over much of the world Sinterklaas is celebrated by Dutch ex-pats, former Dutch colonies, and communities of immigrant Dutch descent. In the United States Dutch heritage communities of Holland, Michigan; Pella and Orange City, Iowa; are counted among places that celebrate with Pieten, not Zwarte Pieten.
Dutch national news RTL asked Holland, Michigan's mayor Kurt Dykstra about the city's wit Pieten (white Petes). He responded, "Any time a tradition comes to a new place in a new time, you have to modify it a little bit to make it suit its context." The Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau director remarked, "I'm so glad we never went there. So glad. You just can't do that." The Dutch newscaster reported, "The children here [in America] have no problem with white Piet."
The Dutch Club in Chicago was the first ex-pat organization to take such action. In 2005 they decided to change. Club president Andrew Enschedé explains, "We ended up with a compromise that preserved the tradition with a twist. We did not abolish the Pieten altogether but instead to make the Pieten different colors—for example Green, Blue, Orange, Purple. We tell the story that our Piets are the rainbow Piets and that their vibrant colors are the result of sailing through a rainbow on the way to America. Sometimes we alter the story and tell the children that the Pieten made a big mess and covered themselves in paint while painting the boat." **read more
In Canada, an African-Canadian committee threatened to protest the New Westminster Sinterklaas events in Vancouver. Organizers cancelled public events on the Quay and at Holland Shopping Centre under pressure from the Dutch community that was unwilling to have the event without Petes. "We can’t celebrate Sinterklaas without Black Peter. You can't pull these two apart," organizer Tako Slump reported in an exclusive interview with Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
The former Dutch colony Suriname took reported unanimous parliamentary action in 2011 to ban Zwarte Piet from public squares and schools receiving government support. The Sinterklaas celebration had also been outlawed in Surinam during the 1980s, but had returned in recent years. "This celebration has a racist element and doesn’t belong in our community. It should be abolished," said politician Ronald Venetiaan.
Imro Rietveld, who grew up as the only black child in his class, reported in 2013 that every year he was subjected to a month of taunts, such as "Your whole family is coming over in the [stoomboot]: and "Can you do tricks." He said some people are afraid to speak out against Black Peter because they are worried about being ridiculed or even losing their jobs.
Sinterklaas traditions have changed over the years, and certainly his servant/helper has changed. In 150 years this character's gone from being Knecht to Piet to Zwarte Piet and, in some places, now just Piet. He began as a slave or servant and has become helper and friend. He was a scary, threatening presence with switches and a large kidnapping sack and now a merry, laughing trickster with treats and presents. He's losing his earrings and his hair has become softer.
Are there alternatives that would preserve the most beloved parts of Sinterklaas tradition and not cause offense? Traditions always evolve and this one has done so and will surely continue to do so. Alternatives and adjustments that have been suggested in the Netherlands range from most unlikely to possible: Smurfs, Wit Pieten, Rainbow-hued Pieten, make-up changes to black smudges without blackface, red lipstick nor Afro black wigs, perhaps other hair, or none, as Piet already wears a feathered cap. Ineke Strouken, director of the Dutch Centre of Popular Culture & Immaterial Heritage, has repeatedly stressed that traditions like Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will continually change and adapt to changing circumstances.
This illustration helps explain why those working for change wanted Zwarte Piet's appearance to change.
What will be next for this ever-evolving character?
Six to Eight Black Men by David Sedaris
An American humorist tries to understand Dutch Sinterklaas traditions
Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution
Background and Development
Change Becomes More Widespread
Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands
by John Helsloot, Quotidian: Dutch Journal for the Study of Everyday Life, Vol. 03 (2012)
Should the Dutch keep Santa's popular blackfaced pal, Black Pete?
by Peter Teffer, November 15, 3013, Christian Science Monitor
Where Dutch Racism Lurks: Why I Changed My Mind About Black Pete
by Harriet Duurvoort, December 5, 2104, The New York Times
(Access requires free registration and allows access to ten articles a month)
4 reasons to reject the racist Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet
by Ishaan Thoroor, December 5, 2014, The Washington Post
A New Holiday Tradition for the Dutch: Arguing About Blackface
by Robert Mackey, The New York times, November 14, 2014
The Dutch don't think it's racist for Santa to have black slaves
by Caitlin Hu, Quartz, December 10, 2014
Holland's Zwarte Piet Problem
by Timothy P. Schilling, Commonweal, December 1, 2014
Kick Out Zwarte Piet from Stop Blackface, anti-racism action group
Raising Racists? Rediscovering my Dutch childhood tradition
blog by Fauve Amelie Vertegaal, December 2016–
**From the "President's Pen" by Andres Enschedé,DutchChicago Link, December 2011:
Over the past couple of days, an article popped up on the internet concerning the arrival of Sinterklaas in Vancouver, Canada. A number of people in Vancouver objected to the presence of Zwarte Piet. A number of you may recall that we discussed the same issue several years ago within our organization and changed our celebration of Sinterklaas somewhat in response to concerns about Zwarte Piet. At the time, it was a contentious decision but we ended up with a compromise that preserved the tradition with a twist. We did not abolish the Pieten altogether but instead to make the Pieten different colors—for example Green, Blue, Orange, Purple. We tell the story that our Piets are the rainbow Piets and that their vibrant colors are the result of sailing through a rainbow on the way to America. Sometimes we alter the story and tell the children that the Pieten made a big mess and covered themselves in paint while painting the boat.
While Piet is currently more viewed as a friend and an equal, many among us appreciate the fact that the traditional caricature of Zwarte Piet is offensive, particularly to Americans. One of the goals of our Club is the promotion of relations between the United States and The Netherlands - promoting those relations is near impossible when saddled with explaining the tradition of Zwarte Piet. Our American hosts, neighbors and spouses usually find the tradition strange, fascinating, and unimaginably offensive and our Zwarte Piet brings to mind images of minstrel shows and stereotypical representations of black people in 1950s American popular culture.
On the other hand, we also acknowledge that many people feel that Zwarte Piet is an innocent caricature. He works with Sinterklaas and is now a friend to all children helping to hand out presents. His blackness derives only from having to go up and down chimneys. He is simply a fun character who is a traditional part of Dutch culture. Many people argue that he isn't meant to be offensive and should not be viewed as such.
The history of Zwarte Piet has been studied by many scholars and likely goes beyond the "black like soot" from the chimney analysis. My personal belief is that we are ambassadors for our country and its traditions. This also means that we need to be fully prepared to explain our traditions to our American neighbors, friends and Americans in general. The question arises therefore whether you are prepared to do that with Zwarte Piet. As a member of the Club, it is not impossible for me to explain in a satisfactory fashion to Americans the tradition of Zwarte Piet nor do I think it possible given the history of Zwarte Piet. I have to confess that I have been asked on many occasions in my 25 years in the United States to explain the tradition but have failed in every single instance.
When we took the decision several years ago to celebrate Sinterklaas differently, we knew that we were among the first Clubs in the United States and around the world to take this decision. Although we have been tracking developments on this front for several years now, the article about Vancouver is the first time that we have seen this issue raised by another Dutch Club in North America. We felt quite progressive back in 2005 when we made the change. I am proud that we are not the Second City in this respect—we were leading the pack in an area that was and is very emotionally loaded for many people. Permission pending.
• Bartunek, Robert-Jan and Thomas Escritt,"Time for Santa to wave "vaarwel" to Black Pete?" Reuters, December 3, 2012
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• Bryan, Chris, "New Westminster Sinterklaas event cancelled due to Black Peter concerns," BC Local News, November 29, 2011
• DutchNews.nl, "Anti-Zwarte Piet activists arrests prompts new debate," November 17, 2011
• Enschedé, Andres, "President's Pen," DutchChicago Link, Dutch Club Chicago, December 2011
• EnSintClopdie, "Regenboogpiet"
• Farivar, Rebecca, "Racism controversy dampens Holland's Sinterklaas tradition," dw-world.de, December 12, 2010
• Gario, Quinsy, Zwarte Piet is Racisme, Tumblr.com
• Giuffo, John, "The Unbearable Whiteness of Piet-ing: Dutch Santa's Blackface Elves", Forbes, December 4, 2012
• Goodell, Andrea, "Holland Piets aren't zwarte," Holland Sentinel, Holland, Michigan, December 6, 2012
• Grunberg, Arnon, "Why the Dutch Love Black Pete," The New York Times, December 4, 2013
• Helsloot, John, De oudst bekende naam van Zwarte Piet: Pieter-mê-knecht (1850), Nieuwsbrief, November 2011, Meertens Instituut.
• Helsloot, John, "De strijd om Zwarte Piet," In Veranderingen van het alledaagse 1950-2000. Eds. Isabel Hoving, Hester Dibbits & Marlou Schrover, pp. 249-271, 398-402. The Hague: Sdu.
• Helsloot, John, "Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands" Quotidian: Dutch Journal for the Study of Everyday Life, 3-1 February 2012
• Jacobs, Sean, "I remember BlackPete*" Africa is a Country, November 25, 2011
• Lindsey, Daryl "Holland's Politically Incorrect Christmas: Santa's Little (Slave) Helper," Spiegel Online International, December 5, 2008
• Minogue, Rohan, "Dutch unamused as St Nicholas' black helper goes multi-culti," The Raw Story, dpa German Press Agency, December 1, 2006
• Olien, Jessica, "In Holland, Santa Doesn’t Have Elves. He Has Slaves." Slate, December 14, 2011
• S., A., personal correspondence, Rotterdam, November 15, 2008
• Saxon, Dana, "Commentary: The Netherlands' Blackface Parade Marches On," BET.com, November 17, 2011
• Sterling, Toby, "Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature, Part II," A Lethe, November 22, 2007
• Sterling, Toby, "Criticism of Dutch Tradition Grows," Associated Press, December 4, 2012
• Sterling, Toby, AP, "Opponents of Dutch blackface tradition plead for change," The Province, October 17, 2013
• Sullivan, Viera and Gillie Simons, "Weg met Zwarte Piet," Petites.nl
• The Telegraph,"Dutch Christmas parade under fire for 'blacked up' Santa's helpers", November 19, 2012
• van der Wolf, Marthe, "Look, a Black Piet!" ThoughtLeader, December 1, 2011
• Wikipedia, Zwarte Piet
*St. Nicholas Center joins with the St. Nicholas Society, taking a position that does not condone nor wish to perpetuate in any way customs that include characters with a dark side, such as the horrific Austrian Krampus. We encourage the St Nicholas tradition and its revival in our time, while abhorring the imagery of these characters. We hope that St. Nicholas will be accompanied by necessary helpers needed for practical reasons, but suggest that these helpers have no real significance in the overall celebration. The Dutch Zwarte Piet has become over time a more benign figure, but he, too, still presents serious difficulties. It would be wise, in our thinking, to do away with the black-face and simply call them jesters, or just Piets, making it clear that all can be St. Nicholas' helpers. St Nicholas is a symbol of good and good alone. He does not need, and should not have, violent and frightening sidekicks for comparison. Support the good St. Nicholas!