Christmas cheer and fear (part 2)

2 Dec

E and ZP

Just when you thought Father Christmas was scary enough, along trots Zwarte Piet with a handful of sweeties. But what’s worse is that he tags along with Santa. Double trouble. Lock up your reindeer.

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a familiar character in the Sinterklaas celebrations in early December in the Netherlands and Belgium. Tradition has it that Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) arrives on a boat from Spain (like Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas dreams of, he has clearly ended up in a sunny ex-pat community) bringing with him a mischievous Moorish companion, Zwarte Piet. Piet ably assists Sinterklaas in deciding who has been nice and who has been naughty and, dressed in his colourful pantaloon and feathered cap, he looks very much the clownish companion of his sharper suited and bearded boss.

Nothing wrong in that you might think. A long-standing tradition from the 19th century. Harmless fun. You might be feeling some warmth towards Zwarte Piet already, imagining him darning Santa’s socks after a long day’s sleigh ride (or boat ride in this case). Gently brushing the snow from Santa’s beard. Bringing him a brandy. Nothing there that could be remotely unsettling for an adult or child. Right? We like a bit of history, a bit of colour. Would you like to meet Piet in his full glory?


This is the Zwarte Piet that you will see striding through the streets of Holland in the run up to Christmas, handing out sweets to children. He is also a staple feature of the decorations adorning shops and streets, as ubiquitous as the Christmas robin or reindeer. My first reaction on seeing Zwarte Pieten in the flesh in Holland was “Seriously? They’re blacked-up? In afro wigs? You’re kidding, right?” Coming from the UK where the Black and White Minstrels were given short shrift some time ago and assigned to the pile of once embraced characters now branded ‘politically incorrect’, Zwarte Piet made my PC alarm ring louder than the herald angels sing. To the non-local eye, he is an anachronism from a time when being sensitive to racial background simply wasn’t a consideration.

Opinion about Zwarte Piet is divided, even in Holland, with those complaining that the tradition is racist often being accused of trying to spoil was is just a bit of historically rooted, seasonal fun. Political correctness aside (hard as it is), what is obvious is that Zwarte Piet has the potential to scare the Christmas cheer out of small children like a festive Papa Lazarou. Our host in Holland (the very lovely Bee and Barlie’s Books) has, as a resident, been subjected to Piet overload. She describes how her daughter was left traumatised after a troop of “beyond black … and very, very tall” Zwarte Pieten visited the local school – “She came out and just jumped pretty much up onto my chest. Last time I saw her like that was Halloween”. That sounds like great Christmas fun. Of course there are exceptions. My 4-year-old was more than happy to meet someone who so filled her hands with sweets that she had to steer her scooter using her wrists.

Zwarte Piet is an unsettling character on several levels and makes any jitters about a scary Santa pale in comparison (if you’ll pardon the pun). Both are in the tradition of the grotesque characters that pepper our folklore and history and show that there’s nothing we like more then to be a little bit scared, even at the merriest time of the year. So deck your halls and rest ye merry but remember to bolt the door and block the chimney.

13 Responses to “Christmas cheer and fear (part 2)”

  1. nick December 3, 2012 at 12:38 am #

    Fuck you whore its isnt Christmas, be jealouse you fuck because Dutch has 2 holidays in december sinterklaas december 5th and christmas december 25th

    • Crumbs & Pegs December 3, 2012 at 12:57 am #

      I’ve approved your comment (a) to reassure you that having just spent a week in Holland with a Dutch family I know the difference and (b) to show everyone what a rude sh*t you are. Merry Xmas!

      • lacithedog March 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

        I wonder what Nick would think about David Sedaris’ take on this tradition?

      • Crumbs & Pegs March 5, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

        Ha ha – indeed! Thanks for commenting and for the link. Very funny! 🙂

      • lacithedog March 5, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

        You’re welcome. Relistening to Sedaris makes me realise the Papa Lazarou aspect to this tradition.

        Also, it seems it is dangerous to actually protest this tradition in Holland. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut when I saw them in Antwerp!

  2. simonsometimessays December 3, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    Excellent post – yet again. What a curious tradition, but perhaps no more so than Punch and Judy, which is hardly a role model for modern family life.
    I always knew that Crumbs and Pegs was, deep down, a Sherlockian. The Adventure of Black Peter is one of the best of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, in which the eponymous villain comes to a grisly end. It just gets more and more festive…

    • Crumbs & Pegs December 4, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

      Sherlockian maybe in the old fashioned sense – I have no desire for the new fangled Benedict Cumberpatch (unlike the rest of the female population it seems).

  3. tatia December 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    Goodness me the level of foul language and incorrect Grammar just took my breath away there. Excellent post and I do think that generally any nation understands that different nationalities will view their traditions with different eyes. And how could we (anybody) not? As

    • Crumbs & Pegs December 4, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

      Absolutely. Though arguably traditions should move with the times! 🙂

  4. tatia December 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    uups – mean to: x

  5. Elena December 4, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    Racist or not, a character who scares the begeebers out of children on the run-up to Christmas comes in handy with coercing them to be nice instead of naughty! Interesting post… I’ve heard of Babushka and the Befana (is it still PC to celebrate with old hags? I think so, though it’s a matter of time), but never Black Pete, so thanks, Helen!

  6. lacithedog March 5, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    Zwarte Piet is also found in the Flemish parts of Belgium.

    My first reaction was to want to say: “rise up against the man, bro!” Not a good idea given the Vlaamse Blok had just won the local election.

    Anyway, try US comedian David Sedaris’ take on this tradition:

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