St. Nicholas

Pin it

Add to Symbaloo

Find us on Facebook

Follow us on Pinterest

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 concesus was that folk tradition was not within the purvue 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 Roietpieten 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.

What will be next for this ever-evolving character?

Question mark

Six to Eight Black Men by David Sedaris
An American humorist tries to understand Dutch Sinterklaas traditions

Dordrecht Arrest Video, November 14, 2011
Amsterdam Arrest Video YouTube, November 15, 2012
Zwarte Piet niet welkom in Amerika RTL, December 2012

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–
This Sinterklaas Season Too, Black Pete Stays (Mainly) Black Updated!
by Frank Jacobs, Big Think, November 19, 2017 

*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!

back to top

back to Netherlands