Who's that with Santa?

Who's that with Santa?

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St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and his helper Père Fouettard (Zwarte Piet) are the source of some controversy – who's giving out the gifts at Christmas time?

The origins of St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas in Dutch) and his helper – in the Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Belgium, Zwarte Piet, and in French-speaking Belgium, Père Fouettard – are the source of some confusion. Natasha Gunn looks into the origins of these seasonal gift-givers.

St Nicholas, St Nicolas, Sint Niklaas

The original St Nicholas was a Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the first half of the fourth century. By the late middle ages, his death – or birth into heaven – on 6 December, was commemorated annually. St Nicholas came back to earth bearing gifts for all deserving children and punished the rest by leaving birch switches behind for parental use.

Today, St Nicholas arrives in Flanders in November to get ready for the special celebrations on 6 December. This differs slightly from the Netherlands in that the day is focused more on children than the whole family, and also that the celebrations take place on 5 December in the Netherlands.

On the eve or the weekend before St Nicholas's day, children put their shoes at the hearth or beside the door with a picture they have drawn (or a list of things they want) carrots and a sugar lump for the Saint's horse – or a glass of wine for St Nicholas's refreshment.

The saint rides on horseback over the rooftops, dropping his gifts down chimneys and in the morning the children's shoes have been filled with sweets, spice cookies and chocolates, often in the shape of St Nicholas and his helpers (the carrot, of course, has been disposed of by the horse and the wine quaffed).

Naughty children don't get anything or may even find twigs in their shoes, but I believe the joy of receiving a stick in your shoe rather than a sweet from Father Christmas was more likely to have been experienced by the maturing baby-boomers than later generations.

St Nicholas and his white horse have been associated with the pagan legend of the Germanic god Wodon (Danish god Odin), an all-powerful deity who was believed to fly through the air on a magic horse each December on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

Sinterklaas

Zwarte Piet

The origin of the Zwarte Piet character is uncertain. Some speculate that Zwarte Piet is a symbol of the medieval Christian idea of evil, which is associated with darkness; hence the symbolically blacked out face. Others believe it is more probable that Zwarte Piet is Saint Nicholas's Moorish servant.

As reported in an academic paper by Alison Blakely, 'Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society', 'the inimitable, enduring figure of Zwarte Piet may be the best representation of all of the composite image of blacks which has come down through the centuries. He is based on a christian religious tradition going all the way back to the Classical period of Western civilisation'.

Wikipedia's definition supports the theory that Zwarte Pieten represent the 'devil' and their definition of Zwarte Piet at the time of writing had been 'tagged' since July 2006 as the neutrality of the definition has been disputed.

However, after having trawled through some forums I gleaned from people who have grown up with this tradition that it is no longer a racist thing, and that the message they were given as a child and the message they pass down to their children is that Zwarte Piet's face is blackened with soot due to his entering houses via the chimney.

A friend of mine in Flanders tells me that in Dutch-speaking Belgium the faces are less painted or 'geschminkt' than the faces of the Pieten in Amsterdam.

Zwarte Pieten

Père Fouettard

In French-speaking Belgium, St Nicolas visits children, along with his side-kick Père Fouettard, who has been known to use his whip to chastise naughty children. The duo check out the status of the children's behaviour shortly before the time they are due to receive presents, on 6 December.

The most popular story behind the hooded figure of Père Fouettard, who is sometimes depicted with devil's horns, is that he personifies the spirit of an evil butcher. Legend has it that the butcher Fouettard lured three boys into his shop, captured them and began to salt them in a large barrel for future consumption. St Nicholas intervened and saved the children from their ghastly situation.

As correctly pointed out to me by readers, Père Noël, the French-speaking Belgian's and French people's equivalent of Father Christmas comes on the 24 December bearing gifts for children. Rather than the elegant white steed ridden by St Nicolas, some people believe Père Noël is accompanied by a donkey bearing gifts in its saddle bags. 

For Dutch-speaking children in Belgium, Father Christmas is known as the Kerstman.

Christmas

Where St Martin comes in

One more thing to add confusion as to who are the present-givers around Christmas time: A similar Christian figure to St Nicholas in France and Belgium, St Martin, in the Flemish tradition is also helped by a Zwarte Piet.

Plus in the eastern part of the Belgian province of West-Flanders, especially around Ypres, children receive presents from St Martin on 11 November instead of from Saint Nicholas on 6 December, or Santa Claus on December 25.

St Martin's day is celebrated in the evening of 11 November (Armistice day) in Flanders, parts of the Netherlands and most areas of Germany and Austria. Children go from door to door with paper lanterns and sing songs to the householders in return for sweets and goodies, a tradition which resembles the American tradition of Halloween.

Note, if you wish for a quiet night or your supply of goodies runs out, turn off your lights or move to the non-street side of the house so that it appears you are away.

Who's celebrating Christmas?

Special thanks to readers who correctly pointed out, in Donna De Block-Stojanovich's words, "Saint Nicolas and his assistant Pere Fouettard are celebrated by Francophones in Belgium the same as Sint Niklaas and Zwarte Piet are in Flanders. Père Noël is the French equivalent to the Kerstman in Flemish and Santa Claus in English [who arrive bearing gifts on the eve of 25 December], and they are not accompanied by Zwarte Piet/Père Fouettard."

Brussels-based Kim Campbell compiled the table below to make sure things are absolutely clear:

Who's who at Christmas?
English St Nicholas Black Peter Father Christmas/
Santa Claus
French St Nicolas Père Fouettard Père Noël
Dutch Sint Niklaas / Sinterklaas Zwarte Piet Kerstman

Wishing you and your children a wonderful Sinterklaas or St Nicholas celebration!

 

Expatica / Natasha Gunn

Photo credits: Sander van der Wel (Sinterklaas and Pieten), Hans Splinter (dancing Zwarte Piets), Tenorio81 (thumbnail). / Updated 2011; 2015.

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