Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Advent Five: Zwarte Piet

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) visits children on December 5[1]. In the Anglophone world, Santa Claus has elves as helpers[2] and lives at the North Pole, or maybe Lappland. In the low countries he has Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).

Originally Zwarte Piet was a devil Saint Nicholas had triumphed over. In later stories, he became a servant from the colonies, and Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet began to arrive on a steamboat. Zwarte Piet brings gifts and sweets to children who have been good, but if they've been bad, he stuffs them in a bag and carries them away to Spain[3] where he lives the rest of the year.

The Netherlands doesn't have a taboo against blackface, but the fact that Zwarte Piet's appearance and characterisation can be problematic has not escaped the Dutch.

[1] In Belgium he visits on December 6, giving him two days to get around both countries, which is probably plenty of time.
[2] Santa Claus is sometimes characterised as an elf, which, to those of us with a passing knowledge of folklore, clarifies why he doesn't bring the gifts you want, or need, or even deserve, but instead, whatever the hell he feels like.
[3] If they've been a little bit bad, they get no present, and rather than being carried away they get a birching. With corporal punishment falling out of favour in modern times, he instead presents them with some coal.
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