St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and his helper Black Peter (Zwarte Piet or Père Fouettard) are the source of some controversy – who’s that Black Piet 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. This guide 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.
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’ as the neutrality of the definition has been disputed.
People who have grown up with this tradition, however, insist it is no longer a racist thing, and that the message they were given as a child and the message they pass to their children is that Zwarte Piet’s face is blackened with soot due to his entering houses via the chimney. Reportedly in Dutch-speaking Flanders in Belgium, the faces are sometimes less painted or ‘geschminkt‘ than the faces of the Pieten in the Netherlands.
The definition of Zwarte Piet leads an annual ongoing Zwarte Piet debate in the Netherlands as to the political correctness of continuing it, and whether it is racist or Dutch tradition. There have been attempts to introduce multicoloured and sooty Pieten, although it is yet to fully replace the ‘black’ Peter. The debate threatened to boil over last year when the UN called upon the Dutch government to amend the image of Black Petes, now one of four public bodies to do so. In 2016 Amsterdam announced that ‘only sooty Piets‘ would be allowed in official celebrations and marketing campaigns are slowly removing blackface imaging. Public opinion is still greatly divided, however, with some 70 percent still in favour of keeping the current Zwarte Piet image, albiet only three years ago less than 10 percent agreed it was time for change. Political circles remain divided as well, with the current Prime Minister Marke Rutte traditionally supporting the tradition, against Labour Party and Deputy Lodewijk Asscher who is open to different Petes.
Joop online magazine suggests this debate is not new: reportedly censorship of this tradition started in newspapers in 1945, after black American soliders liberating the Netherlands complained.
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.
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/|
|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!