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Wed, 12.05.1500

Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), a ‘Black Face’ Dutch Folk Character

Zwartte Piet (character)

On this date, we reference the origin of Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) in approximately 500 A.D. He is a “Black Face” character of European folklore, a companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch "Sinterklaas").

Black Peter’s story is part of a Dutch "holiday" in the Netherlands and Flanders, where Nicholas was a bishop who lived in what is now called “Turkey.” After he died, the Byzantium church declared him a saint. The legendary bishop is remembered in an annual holiday widely celebrated in the Lowlands.

During this time, local citizens give each other presents and write poems filled with irony and humor to poke fun at each other. Children are taught to believe that they receive their presents from Saint Nicholas, accompanied by “Black Peter,” his servant. Zwarte Piet has counterparts in the folklore of other European nations and is known by many names, including Rumpelklas, Buzebergt, and Hans Muff.

According to legend, Zwarte Piet is a Moorish servant or slave accompanying Saint Nicholas on his holiday travels. He is commonly depicted in the colorful pantaloons, feathered cap, and ruffles of a medieval European palace attendant and is sometimes associated with Satan. Often portrayed as a mean and mischievous character, parents tell their children that if they have been good, Zwarte Piet will bring gifts and sweets for Christmas, but if they have been bad, Piet will scoop them up, stuff them in his huge sack, and spirit them away to Spain.

The tradition of Zwarte Piet has been criticized for racism and promoting offensive stereotypical views of Black people. This criticism has not led to changes in the tradition.

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