Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution

Who is this character that inspires both love and antipathy? Where did he come from? Why is he now such a controversial figure? These illustrated articles help explain who Zwarte Piet is and how he is changing.

Zwarte Piet
Postcard ca. 2005
Zwarte Piet
NTR Sinterklaasjournal 2016

Background and Development

Follow this character from his introduction in 1850 through the 20th century and into the 21st with the growth and intensifying protests that raised increasing questions about black-face and racism. During this lengthy time, the tradition has evolved from this black servant character being primarily responsible for discipline into a fun-loving, joking sidekick to the more remote Sinterklaas. It is the Piets that do acrobatic stunts and distribute treats.

Growing Controversy

The debate over this character intensified in 2013 with the UN Human Rights Commission weighing in on the topic. Activity increased particularly in Amsterdam, though the general consensus was that folk tradition was not within the purview of government to legislate. A new protest group formed, Zwarte Piet Niet! and the festival was challenged in court.

Change Becomes More Widespread

Amsterdam moves to Roetpieten or Soot Piets, characters with smudges from coming down chimneys. The Sinterklaasjournaal also introduces change. These changes bring backlash from traditionalists, particularly in the more rural areas. Sinterklaas festivals in other countries are increasingly showing non-black-face Piets.

Controversy Continues

Backlash from traditionalists continues as the KOZP moves its activism to more cities. Most of the demonstrations are quiet and orderly, though there is provocation and violence in some places from pro-Zwarte Piet counter demonstrators. The controversy continues, though more cities are welcoming sooty or chimney Piets. In June 2020 the Dutch Prime Minister told how his views have changed over the last seven years and he now believes the time is coming when there will be no more Zwarte Pieten.

More Sooty Piets

Sooty Piets—Roetpieten—are showing up at Sinterklaas arrivals. Amsterdam and Utrecht have moved entirely to pieten whose faces are only marked with sooty smears from going down chimneys. Rotterdam will join Amsterdam and Utrecht in 2019 with all sooty piets. These cities are three of the four largest cities in the Netherlands. Change is coming to media, as well. NTR's popular Sinterklaasjournaal is increasing the presence of sooty piets as they gradually move to fewer and fewer blackface characters. Nickelodeon in their Sinterklaas series is now having all their pieten with completely unpainted faces.

A Turning Point

2020 has seen significant changes following the Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Public attitudes in the Netherlands in support of traditional blackface Zwarte Piet have shifted from 89% in 2013 to just 47% in June, 2020. Changes in policy for images on social media sites, more retailers banning blackface goods, and more cities using just Chimney or Sooty Piets all indicate more widespread cultural change.

The Tide Has Turned

2021 has brought a sea change in attitudes and practice regarding Pieten in the Netherlands. Surveys show that a majority of local Sinterklaas arrivals, in all but the smaller towns and villages, will use alternatives to blackface Piets. As one spokesman said, "the adjustment is inevitable."

What will be next for this ever-evolving character?

Question mark

More in other sections

Six to Eight Black Men by David Sedaris
An American humorist tries to understand Dutch Sinterklaas traditions
How do non-native residents of the Netherlands view Zwarte Piet, St. Nicholas' blackface servant?
What immigrants from many places think about Zwarte Piet

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Further Resources

*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!

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