Continuing with our 'Strange Holiday Traditions', we have a character who I'm surprised I haven't covered before, but this fine fellow seems to have fallen through the cracks. Let's remedy that now with a look at Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter (aka Black Pete). This evening is the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 5th) in the Netherlands, wherein you will find our titular character.
Fulfilling the same role as Krampus and the Belsnickel, Black Peter was a character who would accompany Saint Nicholas on his rounds. Black Peter came from the Christmas legends of Belgium and the Netherlands - seeing as it was unseemly for a Saint to be punishing the bad children, the role of enforcer went to him. If you were REALLY bad, he would toss you in a burlap sack and drag you back to Spain ... wait, what???
Yep, not only that, but Black Peter could be more than one man ... he could be six ... he could be eight ... he could also be all sorts of colors! What on Earth is going on here?
To try and make SOME sense of all this, you need to understand the character's history. There are different versions of his origin, but the most common is this one:
"There are many speculations as to how and when Black Peter or "Zwarte Piet" came into being, but today he is as much a part of the Sinterklass tradition as St. Nicholas himself. His coloring is not a racial statement but rather a representation of the devil. Though the possibility exists that Peter might be representing a Moorish servant from the original lifetime of the Bishop, it is much more probable that Black Peter originated from the medieval Christian idea of Satan. Since "black" is often associated with something evil and sinister, he was often referred to as "Black Peter" by the Dutch.
In many European countries and holiday customs, a similar devilish creature frequently plays the role of a prankster such as the Nissen in Denmark or a ghoulish fellow with a long red tongue and big tail called Krampus in Germany. Although Zwarte Piet's beginnings were once likened as to the devil bent under submission by the goodness of St. Nicholas, his demeanor through the years has taken on a more lighthearted air. Actually, his appearance today is an unusual mixture of a traditional black face in a sixteenth century Spanish costume with a set of duties that would tire even the devil himself.
Zwarte Piet begins the busy holiday season by leading St. Nicholas' white steed with the Saint riding on his back down many a parade route welcoming Sinterklaas to the Netherlands. On St. Nicholas Eve, he must then ride across the roof tops with the Saint, listen down every chimney for good children, as well as deliver gifts. He is also expected to herald Sinterklaas arrival at parties that same eve by throwing "pepernoten" or candy to the throngs of children.
Zwarte Piet has also been credited for recording many of the legends and adventures about St. Nicholas for story telling. If nothing else, one would likely call him a "good" sport for performing his many duties with untiring devotion. All in all, he has evolved into quite a necessary assistance to the festivities of the season."
That all sounds well and good, and is a rather white-washed version of the tale. Another version has the character being a slave that Saint Nicholas freed, who then promised to serve him as a free man and become his assistant. There are other variations (depending on who you read), but the fact remains that the Dutch every year have Saint Nicholas arriving with his blackface assistant(s) to meet and greet the children. This has caused all sorts of problems in recent times, with charges of racism being leveled at the continuing use of the character - town fathers have tried to get around this with the "chimney sweep" story, but people weren't buying it. They then made matters worse - from Wikipedia: "In 2006 the ... Dutch Programme Foundation as an experiment replaced the black Pieten by rainbow-colored Pieten, but in 2007 reverted to the traditional all-black Pieten". To see a video of Black Peter in action, go here:
Rather than try to explain this fellow (or fellows) any further, I'm going to turn the floor over to author David Sedaris. I had the good fortune this past weekend to hear HIS take on Black Peter, entitled "Six to Eight Black Men". It is one of the funniest things I've heard in a LONG time --- you want to turn up the volume for this! Enjoy!
Coming tomorrow, the K.A.C. Image of the Year ... you have been warned!