Who is Black Pete? 

On the controversies surrounding Black Pete 

On October the 26th 2016 the “Saint and Petes guild” published an article that proves beyond any reasonable doubt that there is a direct link between the present-day character of Black Pete and the mythological masked and black “Petes and Clauses” known from Dutch folklore well before 1850. It is strongly recommended to read this article “Zwarte Klaas is Zwarte Piet” in full, before proceeding with the following text.

Black Pete has been an important and popular character in the Dutch Sinterklaas festivities since ancient times. However, in recent years his image has been mired by controversies and emotional discussions in which unfortunately neither side has refrained from insults, abuse or worse. Nowadays, the Black Pete character and its performers are even venomously labelled as racist or racism, ignoring its true heritage, history and unique position in the Sinterklaas holiday season. Very few seem to be even aware of the historical background and the cultural heritage embedded in these figures. Regrettably, the negative connotations and emotions around Black Pete appear to be fuelled predominantly by limited, incomplete or even outright incorrect information. Rashly conclusions circulate, based solely upon incorrect or biased sources, that fully ignore well-known historical facts on the Sinterklaas festivities and especially on the role that black characters, such as the Petes, play in the Dutch and European folklore. Worse, assumed relations with slavery and colonialism do not seem to leave any room for rational discussions on the topic. At the same times changes of the tradition are loudly demanded by activists and, in some places, even enforced. This has led to the current undesirable and needlessly polarized situation, aggravated by the habit of some activists to routinely label everyone racist that questions or even checks their statements or sources. At the same time, is the information on Black Pete published by these sources and passed around on (social) media questionable in many places questionable. This website therefore provides information on the origins and history of Black Pete. At the same time, this website fully endorses the right of anyone to protest and discuss the figure of Black Pete. Yet, it stresses that this right of debate is granted likewise to both sides in this debate. We strongly believe there is no place for racism in our society and extremist visions and violence of any sides is strongly opposed. A joint way forward continuing an age-old tradition is our common goal

Native traditions
When judging the case Black Pete, we need to consider facts and his true history and not let us be locked into trenches discussing invented or assumed stories disjoint of any historical sources. Furthermore, a real discussion requires all sides to be participating actively and freely, which is currently not facilitated by aggressive accusations and the forced changes resulting from an incomplete discussion. Everybody impacted by these changes, virtually the whole population needs to be involved in this process. The obsession to force a change of Black Pete on short notice or even now, fully bypasses these basic principles. A top-down and forced change of Black Pete, excluding many of the stakeholders is not acceptable and will eventually be unsuccessful. Finally, it is good to consider the figure of Black Pete as it appears now in the festivities, which differs already from even the recent past. There is no use in contemplating on right or wrong of the habits of bygone eras. The present-day Black Pete does not look anywhere close to the memories that some of us carry from its past. Sinterklaas is a living tradition and many changes have happened and will happen.

Also, the freedom of debating the figure of Black Pete comes with the obligation to understand and know the full history of this figure and not focus blindly on a single aspect or a presumed descend for which no historical backing exists. A broader knowledge on the topic will provide the understanding that mythological figures like Black Pete have no relation to the blackface figure known from the United States. These two represent cultural phenomena from a completely different time and background. Looking at the historical facts it is inevitable to accept that black characters, of which Black Pete is only a single incarnation, are part of the traditions of the original inhabitants of this part of the world. By projecting this figure directly or indirectly on unrelated traditions with a negative image, its true origins are negated, and no fruitful discussion is possible. These false interpretations and the consequent polarization in society are avoidable problems however. The black colour, the clothing the curly hair are important and easily understandable facts within the context of the folklore. In these days we might expect that the facts form the basis of any rational debate in society. Contemplating all the facts, there is no clear reason why this figure should be abolished or tarnished unrecognizable based on lack of knowledge and wrong assumptions.

This does not exclude some future changes in the appearance of the figure to avoid existing negative connotations or similarities with other figures. However overall it should be recognized as a tradition that is important to hand over to the upcoming generations.

Commonalities in appearance and behaviour but a different origin

A lot of false information on this topic is floating around on (social) media. Many believe that the history of Black Pete only goes back about 150 years to a specific date in1850 when he was supposedly introduced in a book featuring Saint-Nicolas by the Dutch schoolmaster Jan Schenkman. However as can be read in the article cited at the beginning of this paper, this has been gainsaid by many historical documents. Black Pete the servant or companion of Saint-Nicolas stems from pre-Christian times. During the early periods of Christianity, when the church attempted to irradiate or replace heathen traditions, the holy figure of Saint-Nicolas was merged with indigenous folklore. In this process the heathen figure of Black Pete was added as a servant to the Saint. And ever since those days in both the Netherlands as well as in other parts of Europe Saint-Nicolas has been accompanied by a black servant of some shape of form. The appearance of this figure has changed regularly over time and place and even now still many regional variants exist. Yet despite the wide diversity of such characters found all-over Europe, four common characteristics of these can be distilled.

  • His masquerade (with its easiest and cheapest form, a face that is blackened)  
  • His Chain
  • His sack (or basket) sometimes filled with coal. In the Netherlands we find cookies and presents in this sack. 
  • His rod

In some places animal skins or horns also are part of the appearance of the figure.

As indicated above the first and major characteristic that Black Pete and all the related historic creatures have in common is the black face. Yet, when people refer to commonalities between the US blackface and Pete they also especially point out this aspect together with some other character elements. It is very important that people are aware that this overlap has totally different origins for both characters, when interpreting the figure Black Pete or even suggesting changes to this tradition. The rigid one-dimensional projection of Black Pete as a blackface based on only one aspect of his appearance clearly fails. A thorough understanding of the figure and the history of Black Pete shows that his behaviour, attire, hair and face have a clear origin inside an old tradition. We cannot judge Black Pete or its performers for these within a completely different time and context.  

When working towards a situation where the association that some people have with the American past is even further reduced a few points need to be considered. This website attaches great importance to maintaining the history and symbolism of the Sinterklaas festivities. Rendering the player unrecognizable is and has always been a major goal for the masquerade of Black Pete that should be retained. The nightly visits of Black Pete hardly visible by its dark face contributes greatly to the mystery and essence of the stories. Everyone remembers as a child looking out of the window at bedtime to see if a Black Pete at work could be spotted. And, at the obvious failure to do so was explained that he had been there but alas, hardly visible due to its blackness. Every child also remembers standing at the front door knowing, for sure, he had seen a Black Pete just disappearing around the corner. Ample proof available in the sack with presents at the door and the ringing of the doorbell. The invisibility, the just “not” seeing Black Pete is an important element of the party

Through the chimney?

One of the tales surrounding Black Pete is the “chimney story”, that states that the black colour of Pete stems from travelling through the chimney, an explanation that has provoked quite some comments recently. Some see this explanation even as a deliberate very ad hoc invention to hide the true origin of the Pete. Yet investigation again shows that this “chimney” explanation has been used historically throughout Europe to explain the black colour of the “bringer of gifts” in midwinter tales. The similarities in these chimney stories underpin that Black Pete refers back too many older characters in European history than many now grant to him. The fact that similar stories were woven around many of its predecessors (the black clauses and more devilish figures) is again a strong indication that Black Pete has a joint origin with these historical creatures.

The chimney storyline can e.g. be found in the tales about the following figures:

  1.  Schmutzli (Zwitserland)Warum ist der Schmutzli immer so schwarz? Dennis: Weil er durch den Kamin kommt.
  2. On  Befana (Italië) Da die Hexe natürlich auf einem Besen durch den Kamin einfliegt, schaut sie schwarz verrußt aus. Bösen Kindern steckt sie allerdings keine Süßigkeiten in die Schuhe, sondern Holzscheite und Kohlestücke.
  3. And in  Pere Fouettard (Frankrijk) Often, his face is darkened to varying degrees. Some say it is because of his being born of a burned effigy, others say that it is from the soot in the chimneys that he goes down with St. Nicholas.,
  4. Also for Knecht Ruprecht (Duitsland) this explanation is referred to: Often, his black clothes and dirty face are attributed to the soot he collects as he goes down chimneys.

Reformation period
During the reformation the celebrations for Saint Nicolas, of course a catholic bishop, were banned by the protestant churches. However, the yearly festivities continued, yet confined to the private space of home. This explains the virtual absence of Saint Nicolas and his Black Pete in drawings and painting from that period. Some erroneously see this as evidence that Black Pete did not exist before the year 1850 ignoring ample information on the contrary. The load noise (“geraas”) with chains and bells which is mentioned in many older Dutch literature is still one of the stereotypic elements of the current Black Pete figure. 

This website collects and publishes such information to enable readers to form a unbiassed opinion

Literature, references

The information presented on this website comes from a number of books. A reference to a specific book is indicated by the name of the author between brackets. E.g. (Janssen) refers to the book “Nicolaas, de duivel en de doden”  from Louis Janssen.

The referenced books:

Frodsham, Paul
From Stonehenge to Santa Claus: the evolution of Christmas
2008 The history press, Gloucestershire

Janssen, Louis
Nicolaas, de duivel en de doden
1993 AMBO Baarn

Renterghem, Tonny van
Het geheim van Sinterklaas en de Kerstman 1996, Kosmos-Z&K Uitgevers, Utrecht/Antwerpen

English version: When Santa was a shaman: ancient origins of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree 1995 Llewellyn publications

Scheer, Arnold-Jan
Wild Geraas, Mijn wonderlijke reizen met Sinterklaas en kerstman.
2010 Uitgeverij Aspekt, Soesterberg

Website references have been directly linked in the text or the pictures involved