A solution to the Black Pete debate? 

Forgotten symbolism in the public debate

From the historic viewpoint, as expounded in the pages “The symbolism of Black Pete”, it is very clear, a Black Pete can only be pitch black, covering its face with the ashes and soot from the fireplace. This is how our ancestors must have done before written history, this is how the tradition was handed down to us over the centuries and this is how it should be now, respecting the festivities historic and symbolic context.

Spreading awareness on the symbolic background of the Black Pete character is a prerequisite for a sensible public debate on the subject matter.  Even more, acknowledging the importance of the historical and cultural context of the Saint-Nicolas tradition is essential for such to happen. The mere blackness of a mythological figure does not necessarily nor even logically imply a master slave relation as assumed by some. History explains why the accusations on racism and the assumptions on ethnic connotations in this figure are not validated and should not be made so light-heartedly. From the point of view of the heirs of an innocent age-old tradition these are clearly unacceptable. Moreover, when these important elements of the Black Pete history are understood well, and not ignored as now is often the case, especially by the adversaries of Black Pete, these will provide full insight in the stance of those that feel attached to the traditional appearance of Black Pete.

Even though a few decades ago some undesirable elements crept into the celebration of the Saint-Nicolas festivities, on which later more, these should not be an excuse to question the mere existence, heritage and symbolism of Black Pete and can certainly not validate any attempt to force changes in the appearance of the figure in the near future. It is even fair to question how far interpretations and changes should be allowed to go in this respect. A regular Black Pete, a black figure in its current clothing fits perfectly in the long-standing tradition of dark servants of the Saint found in The Netherlands and the wider Europe, sometimes also in the so-called dual role (in Dutch).

In the old picture shown on the bottom of this page we even find a Black Pete riding a horse while being higher situated that the Saint himself. It is also important to take note here that the servant as introduced by Schenkman in his famous book does not wear a chain while the contemporary Black Pete in many places carried such gear around that time. Once again this is an indication that these characters were not derived from the character as introduced by Schenkman. It might be understandable that initially some people linked the origins of Black Pete in a simple way to this book, but it is clear now that there is much deeper history to the character of Black Pete than meets the eye. Ignoring the rich cultural history embedded in this masquerade is no longer an option now. 

Furthermore, both Saint Nicolas and Black Pete can be impersonated by anyone, independent of race or gender. There is also no need for the Saint to be white. The Saints attire displays a number of distinct features that already symbolise the light: his hair, beard and albe. Older pictures of the Saint sometimes even show a man with a dark skin. For playing a Black Pete clearly no restrictions exist at all, as he is covered anyway in dark soot/paint to symbolise night and darkness.

As indicated above, it must be acknowledged that during a short period in history, notably the sixties and seventies of the past century, in a few places some dubious aspects crept into the masquerade. Although not all these elements can be directly labelled as discriminating, they are viewed as such by some, as they remind them of the exaggerated images of black people shown in comics and illustrations. Examples of these stereotypes include the exaggerated red lips outside the real mouth area. But even worse and truly wrong was the use of a lisp Surinam accent   We stress here that this happened only in a few places and that simultaneously there were many examples where the tradition continued without these aberrations. Furthermore, since the seventies the tradition has evolved further in a natural process, in which these elements were automatically corrected. Unfortunately, some retail chains have used these negative stereotypes in strips and advertisements until recently.  Yet, the majority of impersonators of Black Pete, which are the primary stakeholders in this discussion, have long left these behind.  Of course, one will find here and there a Pete that still can be improved in detail, but this has become a marginal phenomenon and cannot be a dominant point in the discussion nor an argument against the current Black Pete  Yet, as we seek compromises with those that still feel offended, even by the nowadays Black Pete, it is obvious one wants to eliminate every link to these remnants from the 60’s and 70’s. 

Unfortunately, there are still people that push for further modifications or even the complete removal of Black Pete.  And although in this debate some traditional elements are branded as offending where these factually are not, it is a of course good to discuss these problems together. Yet we stress that the important cultural and historic meaning of black may not be ignored in this discussion, even by those that experience this colour as less pleasant. And whatever solution is explored to resolve the tensions and adapt Black Pete it remains vital to keep the link to history and its inherent symbolism including the all-important element of anonymity. The black colour is one of the original and ancient characteristics of Black Pete and cannot be claimed to be an ethnic reference. This colour has come to us from the primeval Black creatures and has no linkage with skin colour nor race but represents darkness, winter and death. The constant claims of racism presumably exposed by Black Pete are not justified and are even very contra productive. Underpinning these claims with references to some of the exceptions from the sixties and seventies discussed above is also not reasonable. These elements have been present only during a very limited period and certainly not everywhere

Even when one experiences some elements or attributes of the figure still as offending this does not mean they can be objectively branded as such. Yet Saint and Pete’s have always done and will do their best to reduce these feelings, wherever they can. Keeping this in mind the debate could quickly find calmer waters. However, for this to happen one should refrain from the frequent and sometimes aggressive accusations of racism. For these itself are extremely offending to most Dutchmen as they feel like an attack not only on them personally but on their ancestors and cultural heritage. With all we know of what came before us and with all the symbolism embedded in this tradition, it is clear that the argument of racism can no longer be brought into play against Black Pete.  A Black Pete does not impersonate a black person, as Black Pete is not even a person but a symbolic creature. Ignoring this evident and simple fact removes any base for a solution to the public debate. 

In many places there has always been a reasonable and acceptable form of the figure Black Pete, even during the period discussed above, exceptions to this rule were not widespread and have long disappeared since then. Any claim that also the very Black of Pete must vanish, solely based on assumed links with racism or being a parody of a black person cannot be accepted. In earlier years various types of Black Pete could still be found in the Netherlands including the well-known variant with his nobleman costume and curly whig, that is now so common. Prior to the uniformity introduced by television in the fifties all those local variants had evolved in their own right from the folklore of “black clauses” that has been known from the time of the reformation. These were all derived from the same historical figures as can be found all over Europe. Restraint in demanding immediate changes and accusations of racism would therefore be a first step in opening up a dialogue on another level and with mutual respect. This would also have to include avoiding forced adaptations, as now being introduced by some local committees. A more relaxed discussion would open the door for a festival acceptable to everybody and maybe even for a long-term gradual adaptation of Black Pete, as evolution always has been inherent in this tradition. Yet this requires acceptance of the fact that the black of Black Pete cannot be seen as an ethnic reference. Black Pete, in its historical context and as an important example of the old black painting tradition that stems from hundreds of years ago, should be allowed to evolve in its own right, at its own pace and with due respect for all involved. In our view this is the only road towards a solution for the controversy surrounding the beloved Black Pete.  All parties involved must also realise that traditions involving millions of people take time to change and cannot be forced to do so. Taken all knowledge into account, any claim that Black Pete relates to racism and should therefore be abolished immediately, must be dropped. Reviewing all knowledge about the symbolism and the being of Black Pete as explained in this and many other articles, no relation to race or racism at all can be identified. 

In summary, time will sort this issue and let us all realize that without a reasonable approach a change of any deeply-rooted tradition will simply not work nor be accepted.

This picture comes from the first print of the book of jan Schenkman: Saint-Nicolas and his servant We see here a black young man as the companion of Saint Nicolas. He sits in a higher position than the saint and also rides a horse. Important to note that in this picture the servant does not wear a chain. From this picture it can be concluded that the Black Pete from the masquerade in the street has a different origin that this book Schenkman. In those days the black clauses and all derived figures wore chains. Figures who only melted into the current black Pete when his image was nationalised in the 50 ‘s of the 20th century.