I’m reprinting an article from a colleague because we both used to write or Africana.com, it was sold to AOL Black Voices and, well, our articles disappeared.
But it’s Christmas time and you’ll see that understanding the Dutch, Sinterklaas and Black Pete will be well worth your time. History is important, especially when the Dutch get all ahistorical (see: Rihanna Gives Heat to Jackie Magazine for Their Racist Dutch Oven).
Past Imperfect: Santa’s Road Dawg
By William Jelani Cobb
Waaay before Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours or Huckleberry Finn, Santa Claus was working the interracial buddy theme. Generations of American children have been raised with the legend of a cherubic white guy who employs vertically-challenged, non-union labor to produce toys in what is probably an Arctic sweatshop. Europeans, however, have a novel element to their Christmas mythology: a black sidekick.
According to the Dutch version of the legend, Sinterklaas arrives simultaneously in every city in the Netherlands bearing gifts for well-behaved children. He is always accompanied by Zwarte Piet,
literally, “Black Pete” — that’s right, Santa’s Negro helper. In various versions of the Sinterklaas myth, Black Pete is depicted as male or female, of normal stature or as a black dwarf.
In some instances, Santa arrives accompanied by legions of undersized Zwarte Pieten who do the actual grunt work of toy delivery. The American image of Santa Claus derives from the famous 19th Century depiction created by the illustrator Thomas Nast; in the Dutch version, Sinterklaas is draped in flowing robes and looks more like a religious cleric. Which he is. Or, at least, was, before the legend took hold.
The actual St. Nicholas — a Catholic bishop upon whom the mythical Santa Claus is based — was born in the late 3rd century AD to wealthy parents in what is present-day Turkey. He died in the year 342 or 343. Nicholas’ parents died during his childhood and his generosity with the fortune he inherited quickly became legendary. He gave away much of his parents’ wealth to the less fortunate
and pursued a religious education, eventually becoming Bishop of Myra. The Bishop also cultivated a reputation for spiritual talents — sailors believed he could calm angry seas with a simple prayer.
According to the legend, Nicholas traveled to Spain, where he befriended a Moor named Peter who was to accompany him upon his further journeys throughout Europe.
The Moors were North African Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century under the command of Gebel Tarik — for whom the Straits of Gibraltar are named. They remained a presence in the country for the next 700 years until the Spanish Inquisition eliminated the remaining Muslim — and Jewish — presence in the region. Shakespeare’s Othello is a Moor — which explains why black actors have traditionally played the role — and the Spanish term “Moreno,” meaning “dark” has its origins with the Moors. The problem, of course, is that the Dutch legend holds that St. Nicholas befriended the Moor nearly 400 years before the North Africans had arrived in Spain en masse.
History, though, has never gotten in the way of a good legend.
Children who had heard of the bishop’s generosity greeted Nicholas and Peter when they arrived in the Netherlands. Peter, as the story has it, carried a bag of oranges to be given to well-behaved children — later tellings say that he also carried wooden switches for children who had been bad.
The tradition of St. Nick hurtling down chimneys, loaded down with gifts, has evolved from the tale of the bishop’s gift of marriage dowries to a poor family. According to the tale, Nicholas and Peter overheard the story of a poor man who, lacking the resources to make suitable dowries for his daughters, would be forced to sell them into slavery. The two devised a plan to deliver satchels of gold coins to the family without insulting the father’s pride. The bishop and the Moor climbed to the roof of the house and tossed the coins down the chimney, where they landed in the stockings that one daughter had set out to dry.
Following Bishop Nicholas’s death in the 4th century, his biography morphed into mythology and eventually tradition. On December 6, the anniversary of his death, nuns decided to replicate his good deeds — leaving gifts for children, friends and parishioners in stockings.
The Dutch festival of St. Nicholas begins in November and culminates with the giving of gifts on December 5th or 6th. Black Peter has come to be depicted alternately as Santa’s sidekick or servant; according to some he is depicted as black since the task of climbing down sooty chimneys falls to him. More often than not, Black Pete plays bad cop to Santa’s good cop; the jolly cleric leaves chocolate and candy in the shoes of children — the Moor takes the candy and replaces it with twigs or lumps of coal if the children have behaved poorly. The child who really cuts up is presented with the threat of being placed in Black Pete’s sack and hauled back to Spain — where Santa and Pete reside during the off-season. In either case, Sinterklaas and Black Pete are inseparable. Thick as thieves, so to speak.
The “Black Pete” tradition has come under fire in the Netherlands in recent years, having been criticized as a racial stereotype (in many instances, Black Pete speaks in simplistic baby-Dutch, a kind of Christmas minstrelsy). And, given the early Dutch participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave and colonization of the Caribbean, it is entirely possible that the Black Pete tradition either began as an innocuous fable and took on elements of stereotype as Dutch slave-trading evolved, or began long after the original St. Nicholas myth as a “new” character during the slave era.
While the legend of St. Nick made its way across the Atlantic and became a treasured staple of American holiday commerce, his black homie was left behind — and for obvious reasons. The concept of a black man swiping gifts and replacing them with coal, threatening bad white children with switches and kidnapping them simply wouldn’t play well in 18th century America. Or 19th century America.
Or, 2003, either. Besides, in this country, a black man on the roof trying to shimmy down a chimney is called breaking-and-entering. Around these parts, we like our legends to look like our presidents and we leave the interracial friendships in the capable hands of Hollywood.
First published: December 22, 2003
Remember: This article was published in 2003 and, as you can see, the Dutch have taken things too far. Some folks need to get put in their place. This video will have you incensed.
It’s important to know the history but according to The Root, this is an Annual Debate and a Problem. The Afro-Dutch don’t like it! We have to work in solidarity with the Afro-Dutch to remove this nonsense.
How do you think we can accomplish this task together?