Zwarte Piet

Beloved Zwarte Piet: A Dutch perspective

Comments30 comments

Hedwig van Driel reflects on her beloved Dutch holiday traditions and the controversy that surrounds Zwarte Piet – in international circles, at least.

I remember going to Sinterklaas’ arrival when I was four, maybe five. I was excited: Sinterklaas was, and is, my favourite holiday. However, when a Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) came toward me, hand extended, I panicked.

It's not that I disliked Zwarte Piet: while Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) was a stern authority figure who kept all your misdeeds in a big red book, his helpers were funny and generously handed out the coveted pepernoten. Still, for some reason, I didn’t want to shake his hand. If my hazy recollections are correct, it was because I was afraid my hand would get stained.

This memory intrigues me. Did it mean that I on some level realised the artificiality of Piet’s blackness? As much as I’d like to believe that, it’s unlikely: when my parents told me a few years later that Sinterklaas didn’t exist, I refused to believe them.

Did it mean I had no idea what to make of black people? Unfortunately, that seems more plausible. I am white, and I grew up in an exceedingly white environment.

Zwarte Piet debate: pepernoten
Pepernoten, handed out by Zwarte Pieten.

Black soot or slave?

As I said: I love Sinterklaas. I love the pepernoten and speculaas, I love the little kids in those cute Zwarte Pieten hats, and I will belt along to any Sinterklaas song. Zwarte Piet is a recurring character in my elaborate Sinterklaas poems.

It’s my favourite holiday – but also the one I most dread explaining to foreign friends.

I’ll admit, for a long time I tried to ignore the offensive parts of this tradition. After all, the Netherlands has no history of minstrelry and the context of this blackface was completely different; Zwarte Piet’s face is just black from the soot of the chimneys he goes down to deliver presents – right?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with believing the above explanation when you’re a kid: I wholeheartedly did. There is a tendency among Dutch people, however, to cling to that explanation even when it’s pointed out to them that the soot doesn’t explain the big red lips and kinky hair.

I clinged for a while, too, until I realised my response was emotional, not rational, and that dismissing the racial connotations of the masquerade was naive at best, racist at worst.

Sinterklaas arrives to the Netherlands from Spain with his funny helpers, Zwarte Pieten.

Destroy Zwarte Piet?

The next question is, of course, what to do? Cries for the abolition of Zwarte Piet are heard every so often.

It’s probably my nostalgia but I think that’s a step too far, gutting the entire ritual and leaving only an overly serious shadow of the impostor Santa Claus behind, throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

Another suggestion has been to simply change the problematic half of Piet’s name (zwarte = black), and introduce Pieten in all colours of the rainbow. It seems silly, but it might not be a bad idea.

People have protested it by saying it’d confuse children. I don’t know. I understood, when I was little, that my half-British friend got presents from Santa Claus instead of Sinterklaas because they’d worked it out between them.

All Dutch children rationalise somehow that the Sinterklaas they encounter doesn’t look like the one they see on TV, and that he enters the country in dozens of cities at once. I don’t think purple Piet would be such a stretch.

I’m too much of a Sinterklaas-lover to lead the charge on the above. However, it’s good to keep in mind that 'but it’s tradition' has seldom been used to justify something that was defensible otherwise.  

Hedwig van Driel / Expatica

Hedwig van Driel completed a PhD in theoretical physics but what she really wanted was to be a film critic. She lives in Utrecht, and her favourite pepernoten are the small, crunchy ones. Photo credit: Heiloo Online (thumbnail), Sander van der Wel (Sinterklaas and Pieten). / Updated 2016.


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30 Comments To This Article

  • JosKnippenberg posted:

    on 8th November 2016, 01:57:35 - Reply

    Love all these different theories about the origins of St. Nicolaas and his Zwarte Pieten, but as far as I'm concerned they arrive each year on a "Stoomboot uit Spanje"! End of story!
  • Jos posted:

    on 3rd November 2016, 22:11:40 - Reply

    All this noise about Zwarte Piet! Let's face it, the Sinterklaas story is full of (historical) problems. We sing: "Zie ginds komt de stoomboot uit Spanje weer aan", yet Sint Nicolaas was a bishop from Asia minor. And Asia Minor didn't have any zwarte pieten, but Spain did: the Moors from North Africa, who occupied Spain from 711 until the fall of Granada in 1492 marked the end of the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain).So the entire Sinterklaas story is a delicious myth, which does not need the injection of racism. Leave it alone, we already have enough racist tinged problems in the world and we sure don't need it in this one innocent story that remains to delight our children (and even this 86 year old expat in the US).

  • Fred posted:

    on 17th November 2015, 09:46:16 - Reply

    Personally I enjoy the whole discussion; it is becoming integral part of the festivities. Yes the origins may lie with Odin/Wodan and the Wild Hunt; -the representation of a Roman Catholic Bishop with his Moors henchmen is a parody raking back to this Protestant country's 80 year independence war with Spain and the Catholic Church. The lyrics of the most heared Sinterklaas song: Sinterklaas Kapoentje (literal translation Neutered Rooster) is clear evidence of this. The surprise (pronounce sar-pree-ze) pun taking activities the elderly engage into on December 5th further these parody roots as well, possibly connecting back to Tyr, Zui or Tiwaz (Germanic god of reckoning) and carnaval. Over the last decades this fest has been over-commercialized anyways, a period where Zwarte Piets started to appear with Rasta Hair and Smurf-like aptitudes (i.e. paniek piet, vergeet piet) . Let it return to its grassroots, and wholly owned by the Dutch culture-aboriginal peoples. Every culture has its peculiarities whether Guy Fawkes burning in the UK, Death penalties in the US, bull-fighting in Spain or whale killing in Norway -every country likely has some aspect other nations may frown upon. Judging however is easy, particularly when choosing the moral high road from your own cultural perspective without even attempting to engage to understand. Different countries, different cultures exist because we have differing perspectives: I like it that way.

  • Concerned Citizen posted:

    on 7th December 2012, 13:44:57 - Reply


    Check wikipedia if you like, it has nothing to do with Black people. It our national ultimate Dutch children feast with a Pagan origin. It is only uneducated people without a sence of history and folklore who see in Zwarte Piet black people. Zwarte Piet is the symbolic represeantation of Odin's black Ravens..
  • Jc posted:

    on 7th December 2012, 12:08:49 - Reply

    It is really nice to see an acknowledgement that dressing up in black face is wrong. As a black woman, I do think it would be really ridiculous of me to paint my face white, put on some blue contacts, wear a blonde wig and paint on small lips, put on a clown suit and say it is all in fun. It would equally be offensive to tape your eyes back and put on a straight black wig to depict an Asian person. Zwarte Piet is very offensive and wrong - it is not about the history as to whether or not Piet is depicting a slave or not, it is about the fact that the meer fact of dressing up in this way is essentially satirising an entire race. I am wearing a Zwarte Piet is Racisme shirt all through this year to prompt discussion by anyone who wishes to talk to me about my shirt.
  • Concerned Citizen posted:

    on 6th December 2012, 20:46:29 - Reply

    I see that lot of people here think Piet or Black Peter in English represent black people, serving Sinterklaas as kind of slaves or servents. All I can say: OMG, dont you people not know history at all? It has nothing to do with slavery or black skin whatsoever. Sinterklaas is the representation of the ancient Germanic God Odin, his white horse represents Odins eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Odin who rides the sky with Sleipnir; Sinterklaas who rides the roofs of the houses weith his horses. Odin was companied by 2 black ravens and a spear. These ravens he got for the lost of his eyesight; the black peters symbolocally represent these 2 ravens. Iam sorry to dissapoint you people, but get your facts straight. It was the Christisan Church who later Christianized this Pagan fest.
  • Petra posted:

    on 3rd December 2012, 15:18:52 - Reply

    @Broc au pont d'eau - there is no such thing as a wrong interpretation. Interpretations are exactly that, interpretations. There are only wrong FACTS.

  • carrico posted:

    on 3rd December 2012, 13:52:24 - Reply

    Helena: How did your mixed race class respond?
  • Yolanda posted:

    on 30th November 2012, 08:03:10 - Reply

    As an African American now living in The Netherlands for over 10 years I will admit that the first time I saw Zwarte Piet I was livid; I mean visibly shaken, disturbed and angry even. However, after reading/educating myself about Sint Nicolaas and his Moorish helpers I understood it to be a historical representation, although Zwarte Piet was seen back then as evil. Nowadays if you look at Zwarte Piet or rather beneath the make-up of those who paint their faces black, you do not get a hint of racism, evil intentions or ignorance. I think it is all about how those that wear the make-up behave. They are not acting like negative stereotypes of an ethnic group.

    The blackface of America, with white mouths, clearly was intended to mock Black Americans. They painted their mouths white to indicate that was the proper, correct way of speaking and yet their faces and hands black for their disrespecting performances. In my opinion, Zwarte Piet does not mock anyone. Everything is not universal. We cannot attribute the history and what is seen as racist in our culture to other cultures that have derived at something in a completely different way.

    When Zwarte Piet starts rapping, acting embarrassingly ignorant and without any intelligence then I will be offended. But until then, there is really nothing to be offended about.
  • Dee posted:

    on 29th November 2012, 19:56:24 - Reply

    @John Yes, the family was white. It's only racist if you make racist. In the eastern part of the country people are not that used to non white people and they tend to make comments like that not knowing how it could be offensive. I hear negative comments from dutch people all the time because I'm American and that has nothing to do with race. It has to do with that the people who make the comments live in a really small world.
  • Darrell posted:

    on 29th November 2012, 14:11:41 - Reply

    I am black and I do not believe Zwarte Piet is racist. I see a lot of people, particularly non-Dutch commenting based on their own baggage. They see what they what to and read way too much into the tradition.
  • Pam posted:

    on 29th November 2012, 12:14:55 - Reply

    You should be sympathetic (with whomever) whenever you offend. But if a nation celebrates something that offends you, I think you might consider moving. When I first arrived in Holland, I did a little research and asked a lot of questions about Swarte Piet. One woman’s explanation was amazing . . . I wish I would have written it down. She thought perhaps the story of Sinterklass and Swarte Piet was mixed up with a myth regarding ravens riding on the shoulders of a God, who looks down from above; and sends the ravens to earth with messages (chocolate letters perhaps?). Celebrate the spirit of the season.
  • John posted:

    on 29th November 2012, 10:38:56 - Reply

    @Dee.. I'm assuming these people were white, and of course most people will therefor assume the comment was meant to be racist instead of the father just giving the child a well-known reference. @kaf Dutch people are no more tolerant or indifferent than people from other countries. People from any country, any race, colour, whatever are, in essence, just like everyone else. Racism isn't something that is purely a white thing, there are plenty of racists in other cultures and amongst people of other colours, [edited by moderator] If the Zwarte Pieten are indeed slaves than why do/are they: - Happy - Free to dance and jump about - not in manacles and other chains People need to read up on history and get some facts straight: Most black slaves were enslaved by blacks. Slavery has been a well established trade for millenia and is still going on, even, unlike some people think, in the U.S. and the Netherlands, and other countries where it is officially against the law (just because it's illegal, doesn't mean it's doesn't happen.) The Sinterklaas celebration is not racist, because the Zwarte Pieten aren't slaves, it's that simple. They are Moors. Moors are black. They are not Moors because they were enslaved, but because those were the kids Sinterklaas was innitially involved with giving presents to. You can make anything into a racism thing, [edited] with the frame of mind that's looking for things to twist and mold into something that fits the racism profile. For those of you that find the Sinterklaas celebration rasist, leaving the country won't really help, every country has something going on that can be explained in a racist way, you just have to go looking for it. The big difference with the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas... it's right in the open.
  • Dee posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 20:32:38 - Reply

    I've witnessed a mother, father and son walking in a store passing by a person of color and the father pointing and laughing, said "kijk(look), zwarte piet."
  • kaf posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 20:23:43 - Reply

    Let me put it this way. If its only color, then why do they have lipstick on their lips, plus an Afro. Is that all from coming through the chimney also. All that is enforcing stereotypes abt black people. Clearly they were black people who were slave. An image is very powerful, as an example, you know why when Obama was president was a big deal for black people, its because, Obama is black and looks like us. So its stick and kids buy it. Thats why everybody in the US can tell their kids now, you can be anything, even the president. Like here in NL, you cant tell black/suriname/ that is they work hard, they could even become prime minister...the kids will laugh at you, they just wont buy it. No wonder these kids have low self esteem. Zwarte piet is a derogatory.If NL is multicultural as it claims, then they would understand that its simply offensive to black people.

    But dutch people are not TOLERANT as they claim, they are simply INDIFFERENT. I know some dutch people will be defensive again. So for me, I just came to work here. Make my money and leave. Once i have a family i will leave this place. I want my child to grow up knowing and feeling that he can do anything and be anything with a healthy dose of self esteem.

    I mean if the dutch government can ban muslims from wearing a Burqa ( which is their tradition) which is harmless. Why not then ban zwarte piet which is old derogatory thing. Let those piets just be white as i said. The kids will still have fun. Why cant people simply see this. And for those who claim black families support this, its only because they are tired of arguing and discussing this, and just decide to jump into the bandwagon. Because whenever you raise this issue, dutch people are uncomfortable and defensive and you dont want that to happen. you simply want to enjoy urself.Thats just my opinion. and i've lived in sweden, studied in germany and now work here in NL. I've never seen such a public racist act in all those countries. So if you fail to see that, then be it.
  • Broc au pont d'eau posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 20:00:22 - Reply

    [quote] just defensiveness [/quote]
    There is nothing to defend because there is nothing wrong.
    [quote] refusing to engage with the issues [/quote]
    Wrong. Refusing to accept a wrong (and racist!) interpretation of the phenomenon.
    [quote] You simply cannot defend this [/quote]
    There is no need for it.

    1. There are [present tense] few blacks that are slaves, if any. No white, or brown or black Dutchman has ever seen one. Nor has any other person, except for those travelling a limited number of countries in Africa and Asia.

    2. At the heyday of slavery not all blacks were [past tense] slaves. The majority were living as free men in Africa, maybe as subjects of the manicongo (ruler) of the Reino do Congo or the asantehene of the Ashanti empire.

    3. Therefore there is no logic in assuming that Dutchmen associate a brown skin, curly hair and thick lips with slaves.

    4. Looking at it from a different angle, can there be any reason why the Dutch would associate slavery with a specific race? Could it be the fact that the Atlantic trade has been initiated by West-African chiefs and kings selling prisoners of war and some of their subjects into slavery? We think not, because that part of the story, though well established and known to the academic community, is not familiar to the general public, nor has it been part of primary or secondary school syllabi [curriculums for the Americans]. Well known however are the Viking slave raids and the fact that millions of Europeans have been enslaved in the Barbary Coast [roughly today's Maghreb]. The answer to our question is no.

    5. There may be some Dutchmen, high up in the mountains or deep down in the forest, who do think that Black Peter was a slave, but they must be exceedingly rare. They then, must be true racists, for adopting the condition of individuals as a criterion for a group defined by race is the basis for racialism.

    6. Likewise, assuming from the existence of some exceptional Dutch believers, that all or the majority of Dutch whites see Black Peter as a slave, is in itself a racialist line of argument.
  • Vera Kertesz posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 19:09:44 - Reply

    Hoenestly, I think this whole Zwarte Piet bashing and outcry is just nonsense. It s a fairy tale and kid s love to live up to it. It not only exist in the Dutch or Benelux culture but a day after it s officially coming to the Netherlands it s also coming to Central Europe where Zwarte Piet is transformed into a devil - like demon figure who punishes the bad kids and St Nikolas is giving the presents to the good ones. The only place where people managed to turn this into a political corenctnes debate is in the Netherlands. It s a great party for the kids and it s all about going on a parade throwing pepernotjes and have fun. I volounterily work with the ponies at the Kinerboederij Westerpark and we participate every year in the pareade. The so called "Sinterklaas Intocht". And I have kids from different ethnical backgrounds with us. They love it and never in a dream they thought about being offended neither their parents. Actually their parents really are annoyed with the whole debate. Let the kids be kids and probably there are really serious issues out there to be focuse then turn a children s tradition into a stupid debate. It s polarising, it heats up a debate it makes people get angry at each other and it makes people jump on that wagon and cause issues. And we did coloured Piets last year cause the girls decided that it s boring to be only black and wanted to do something different. No small child was actually confused at all they loved it and wanted to have countless fotos with our colourful Piets. It s a masquerade and people should accept different cultures.
  • barbara posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 17:48:18 - Reply

    Why do we have to question everything in the world? Next? Peter Pan? Jesus? No child has been hurt looking at a black person, or a white is what is in the heart. We adults are so bored with life that we must tear apart something just to do it? Everyone will have an opinion of course, but to do away with something because of a discussion is senseless. I think even turkeys resent we now abolish that tradition before the merchants take it away? Oh, well. at least we are all talking.
  • carrico posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 15:32:20 - Reply

    if nothing else, this dutch tradition keeps alive an honest discussion of racism.
  • Oscar posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 15:20:22 - Reply

    I read a book on conflict resolution long time ago, I think I can resolve this issue of Black child slaves and White Santa. In Netherlands where this tradition is part of the culture and I believe not racist, we should also have a Black Santa and wit pieten. You are free to choose what you like. Slavery was abolished and black and white people can work together on this one.
  • JK posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 14:45:33 - Reply

    @kaf: Zwarte Piets are not slaves. Quite the opposit. Sinterklaas comes from the Saint Nicolas, Bishop of Myra (modern Turkey). He became the patron of children (amongst others) because of his love for children. It is therefor hilghly unlikely that he would enslave them. Zwarte Piet originates from Saint Nicolas saving some Moorish kids from being executed for a crime they did not commit, but where falsely accused of because of racist reasons. Those kids willingly became his followers, which ultimately turned into the current Zwarte Pieten
  • barbara van seters posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 14:36:22 - Reply

    Even when I was little I never thought of Black Piet as a black person but as a characters like, Spiderman or Santa's elves. He just happened to be black, I believed they are with the Sint , because they want to be there, not because Sinterklaas keeps slaves. Its a tale and a story, it makes people happy,.. ( by the way our Sinterklaas is made white),
    but to be honest I dont think the kids would mind in which colour the Piets came as long as they are funny and playfull and throw lots of candy. But I also believe that people shouldn't be offended by this tradition ;black Piets are loved...very much so.
    And we also know slavery is wrong ( hopefully ) and we also know that also slaves come in all colours and sizes, unfortunantly.
  • Antoine posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 14:23:31 - Reply

    Sinterklaas deserves to be a national holiday!
  • Nick posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 14:20:27 - Reply

    Come on, move on. This is not about cuteness and kids, this is about giving up a tactless tradition from a bygone era. You simply cannot defend this. Look up Golliwog, for example. And Santa Claus is american, not British. We call him Father Christmas.
  • Helena posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 14:16:34 - Reply

    Thanks for this article. I shall use it with my mixed-race CAE English students. Should be an interesting discussion!
  • Julie Kennedy posted:

    on 28th November 2012, 14:14:19 - Reply

    Maybe I got this all wrong, but I thought the reason they are black is they were originally Moor servants/helpers and had accompanied St Nicholas on his journey from the South of Spain?
  • Roxy posted:

    on 27th November 2012, 23:36:53 - Reply

    The main problem that I have with Zwarte piets is if they are black from the soot of the chimneys, then why are they black when they arrive from Spain? The haven't delivered any presents yet. surely they would have a wash at some point?
  • Caterina posted:

    on 27th November 2012, 21:09:33 - Reply

    I happen to like the whole Sinterklaas festivities, and not try to tear everything apart and try to make it politically correct. But, then, again, I'm white, so I cannot regard things from a black person's point of view.
    However, I find very amusing the story that a friend of mine told me, who had visited Bonaire before Christmas time, just a few years ago. What she said was that, while in the Netherlands children were sometimes afraid of the black Pieten (I guess mostly in the past, with all the stories about what the Pieten and naughty kids) over there they were familiar with the Pieten's black faces, and were afraid of white Sinterklaas! I don't know whether this could be regarded as racism against Sint, but most probably the good old guy didn't mind...
  • kaf posted:

    on 27th November 2012, 18:02:41 - Reply

    These are my 2 cents. I am black and i find zwarte piet plain offensive. Traditions are good. but some of them have to be abolished at some point. Slavery was abolished all over the world at some point because it was inhuman. For me, what angers me is that those called zwarte piet were slaves, whenever i see it, it reminds me of those days of slavery. plan simple. Get rid of that black paint, let them just be white. and remove those curly hair. The kids will still enjoy themselves even if they saw a white piet.

    Its really funny, when i give my opinion abt this to my dutch friends. everyone of them panicks and become defensive. They even dare to say, but even black people like it too. OMG. for me, its like those people who are caught on tv saying something racist, and the 1st thing from their mouth is, BUT i have black friends too, so i am not racist.
  • Petra posted:

    on 27th November 2012, 13:12:18 - Reply

    It's easy - many Dutch people explain Zwarte Piet's blackness as being because he came down the chimney, so all you need is realistic black-soot makeup. Then your Piet is still 'black' but is not a white person dressing up as a black one.

    It's also really nice to hear an article about the problematic aspects of Zwarte Piet written by a Dutch person that isn't just defensiveness and refusing to engage with the issues.