The symbolism of Black Pete

For many the meaning of Black Pete and his four characteristics: the dark face, the rod, the sack and the chain is a mystery, what does Black Pete represent?  Not having a simple answer to that question, a Black Pete means multiple things at different times and locations, it is more easily explained what Black Pete does not represent. A Black Pete does not in any way impersonate a human being or for that sake a group of humans, even though this role is obviously being played by a real person during the Saint-Nicolas festivities. Important to note is also, that for almost all adults and children alike he is a popular figure and viewed as an aimable creature.

The origin of the Saint-Nicolas festivities lies in the midwinter celebrations well-known throughout Europe. Ever since pagan times these midwinter festivities symbolize the change from (cold) barrenness to fertility, from night to light (the day) and from winter to summer. In early Christian times, the change from bad to good has additionally been included in this symbolism. From these times stems also the addition of more pedagogic elements to the midwinter tradition, especially that of teaching children about morality.

The latter still plays a role in the current day Saint Nicolas festivities. In the run up to the holiday season children are imprinted that they will forfeit their (chances of) presents when they do not behave “well.” The classical rod may be physically absent in nowadays celebrations, but its intentions are still very much there. Also, in many common Saint Nicolas songs the rod is still frequently mentioned.

It should be noted that most modern Saint and Pete players feel ever less committed to this educational role of old. The behaviour of children seems of lesser concern to them, and some of them even convey this message to the adults in reach. Most of these Saints and Petes do not like the thought of children experiencing them as frightening figures. And moreover, they also do not want to be burdened by the educational tasks that parents have troubles in executing. In that sense the role of Saint Nicolas is changing but still there are many places in the country where the festivities stay very close to the historical story line. Even the old-fashioned rod can sometimes still be found here and there and in the home visits of Saint and Pete the pedagogic side of the story is an important element. Here children are told that they must behave well to receive presents and moreover that naughty children might end up facing the rod. 

The clothes that Black Pete wore historically, especially when we look at a cartoon of Servant Ruprecht below, reminds us also of the bad and the good and of garbage that needs to be collected. For all people of any region, race or religion, this is a recognizable role. In every person also a dark side resides, as is being represented by Black Pete. However, to state the obvious again, Black Pete is a fictious creature that cannot be compared to a real person like a nightman. And once more it should be stressed that a Black Pete does not represent a human being, whatever he looks like. When everybody recognizes the absence of any link between Pete and a real person these associations will probably diminish. It is important that everybody participating in the discussion on the topic understands the symbolism in the figure of Black Pete including the specifics of his looks. This will lead to understanding that Saint-Nicolas and Black Pete really belong together in being each others anti-poles. This is illustrated by below list

Saint Nicolas Black Pete
Good Bad
Light Dark
Day Night
White Black
Summer Winter
Fertility Infertility
Reward Punishment
Well behaved Naughty
Life Death
The World Underworld, world of death
Human Ghost
Old Young
Free Enslaved

Foto

Who has the white hair, beard and a white dress below his red mantle? Indeed, Saint-Nicolas, he represents the light, fertility, summer and all things good and well. In fact, also this Saint-Nicolas is no longer a religious human from Myra but a symbol for all these favourable things. Like Black Pete he should be judged as such. However, the element of dirty rags found with the ancient pictures is no longer present in the current day attire of Black Petes that on the contrary go about in very colourful outfits. Probably this clothing fashion has been inherited from the elegant versions worn by the masqued Clauses and from other historical images used to depict Saint Nicolas. E.g. the wooden engravings of Charles the 5th were often used to represent the figure of Saint Nicolas in publications.

Yet another view on the dark and light of Saint and Pete can be found back in the interpretation of Black Pete as the young and new life that transforms during the year into a Saint, who after his death soon rises again as a new Black Pete. A classical story that has close connections to the double roles we find back in the history of Saint-Nicolas and Black Pete.

Saint Nicolas and Black Pete represent the reality as we know it, with its good and bad sides, with dark and light. As in all tales the good, the light must finally overcome and therefore the Saint is treated with utmost respect, which is something different from submission. In addition, there is a need for a lighter note contrasting to the solemnness of the tale. Now and then we should break the rules and be naughty. This jester like role is found back in Black Pete whose little mischief behind Saints back does just that. 

The Saint cannot be who he is without his Black Pete and removing this figure from the story or crippling him by removing his symbolic black face wrecks the Saint Nicolaas story beyond repair and is therefore not an option. In our view it is of utmost importance to maintain the symbolism of the festivities as described above and not forget these essential themes in the heated context of the current debate.

After digesting the explanation of the symbolism of Black Pete and our view on it on this page, one can proceed directly to the page solutions to read how we envisage ending to the current controversy in a satisfactory way.