Christmas Netherlands

Sinterklaas and his fancy helper

Zwarte Piet in Amsterdam

Who is Zwarte Piet? A Moorish slave? An Ethiopian boy named Petrus? A Devil? Spaniard? Or maybe an Italian chimney sweep? I never heard about Zwarte Piet until I visited Netherlands this Fall.

Zwarte Piet in Amsterdam

Zwarte Piet in Amsterdam

Because I really didn’t know who this fancy companion of Santa Claus is (‚m sorry, I used to see Santa in a company of elves, Snowflake, other good fairies or – on the contrary – devils – like in German Bavaria region) I decided to ask a few questions to random Amsterdam shopkeepers whose display windows had already been Christmas-decorated. This is what I heard:

The legend of Sinterklaas dates back to the 19th century, when someone came up with the idea of Black Peter, the helper of Saint Nicolas.

According to the Dutch tradition at night, when everyone is asleep, Zwarte Piet climbs the roofs and enters the houses through chimneys to leave Sinterklaas’ presents by the fireplaces. During the day his task is to walk the streets and give children special candies and cookies. He also carries Santa’s sack with presents and takes care of the Sinterklaas’ horse.

Q: Is Zwarte Piet a Santa’s slave?

Zwarte Piet is not a slave. Sinterklaas of course couldn’t have slaves, simply because he’s Saint, so Black Peter is explained to be a Santa’s helper (although some environments still bring up the idea of his slavery).

I’ve also learned that Saint Nicolas arrived (by boat of course) to Netherlands this year on my second day in Amsterdam – 2nd Saturday of November – and there was a Sinterklaas Parade (Oh! How could I miss that!!!). He stayed here until December 6th, when he traditionally goes back to… Spain.

Some time ago, the holiday of Sinterklaas was celebrated on 6th December, but nowadays children are more and more impatient and Sinterklaas’ night starts to be celebrated on 5th in the evening.

…. well, it’s not only the case of Netherlands, I feel that in Poland it’s exactly the same.

One of my interviewee admitted that when he misbehaved his mother used to tell him that Sinterklaas will take him to Spain where he’ll have to work in toy factory with other naughty children for a whole year. Lovely idea, isn’t it? 😉

The origin of Zwarte Piet

Q: Slavery? Child labor? And why Santa is from Spain, not from Lapland?

Some time ago parents scare their kids saying that Zwarte Piet puts naughty children into his bag and takes them to Spain, where they will have to work hard in the factory throughout the year. Up to the 16th Century the area of Netherlands belonged to the Monarchy of Spain. That’s why in Netherlands Spain has many negative, historically based associations.

Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is the companion of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in the Dutch folklore. The way he looks is very characteristic – he’s commonly depicted as Moorish, with blackface make-up, dressed in colorful Renaissance outfit.

According to myths dating to the beginning of the 19th century, Saint Nicholas operated his gift-giving business by himself or in the company of a devil. Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas Eve the devil was shackled and became Santa’s slave.

Another legend says, that Zwarte Piet was an Ethiopian boy named Petrus, whom Sinterklaas bought at the slave market of Myra, to give him freedom. The boy was so grateful that he remained with his savior.

The growing African immigration to Europe and tightening of mutual contacts helped to change the image of Zwarte Piet. He became a respected assistant of Sinterklaas, devoid of elements of slavery and colonial past of Netherlands.

According to a popular explanation that came to prominence in the later decades of the 20th Century, Zwarte Piet is a Spaniard, or an Italian chimney sweep, whose blackness is due to a permanent layer of soot on his body, acquired during his many trips through the chimneys. And this is what we call political correctness 😉

Have you ever met Zwarte Piet?
Is there a similar legend in your country?

Izabela Xmas

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Z pochodzenia Sanoczanka, Japanofil, wolontariusz tęskniący za Afryką i etnograf-pasjonat. // Just a small town girl who always dreamed of travels and faraway places... Now Warsaw-based international relations analyst, travel blogger & folklore enthusiast, who cherishes nature, simple life & Irish traditional music. Japanophile. Addicted to haribo jellies & …red lipstick.

  1. Your post inspired me to talk to my friend (Dutch) who lives in Utrecht to check on the piece with Santa coming in a steamboat. 😀 This is so funny yet so strange when you think of Poland. But – we used to have snow and mountains, they have canals, so it actually makes sense. 😉

  2. I’ve been a bad boy! Very bad jajaja but still the story is really weird, Santa and his black helper?! Thank you for sharing this one! The life won’t be the same….

  3. This is very interesting story! I have never heard about this to be honest, although I was visiting Netherlands many many times 🙂

  4. It’s always good to know something new 🙂 I wish Santa will come to my house 6th! But hey! Now i realised that Santa is the best traveler ever 😀 Whole world in just one day! 🙂

  5. Widać, że święta zbliżają się wielkimi krokami. Na szczęście byłam miła i grzeczna, więc liczę na dużo prezentów od… Gwiazdora 🙂

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