Black Peter

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Black Peter

Zwarte Piet

Children in the Netherlands receive presents on St. Nicholas's Day, December 6. According to old Dutch folk beliefs, each year St. Nicholas and his helper, Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, sail from Spain to Holland in a ship loaded with presents for good children. Nowadays, Black Peter not only carries St. Nicholas's sack of presents, but also brandishes a birch rod which he uses to discipline undeserving children. Truly troublesome youngsters face sterner punishment. Black Peter tosses them into his sack and carries them back to Spain with him (see also Cert; Knecht Ruprecht).


During the Middle Ages "Black Peter" was a common nickname for the Devil. One tale of those times proclaimed that each year on his birthday, St. Nicholas kidnapped the Devil and made the evildoer assist him in his good works. On St. Nicholas's Eve the good saint and his reluctant helper flew from house to house dropping presents down the chimney. Somehow these gifts landed in the shoes that the children placed by the fire before going to bed.

Black Peter traditionally appears as a dark-skinned man dressed in the costume of a sixteenth-century Spaniard. Perhaps this image of Black Peter developed during the sixteenth century, when the Dutch suffered under Spanish rule. The Dutch may have associated Spain with dark-skinned people since a north African ethnic group known as the Moors ruled parts of Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. An alternative explanation for Peter's darkened skin links it to his duties as St. Nicholas's assistant. Some speculate that Black Peter may have acquired a permanent coating of ashes and soot from scrambling down so many chimneys. Still, the most likely explanation for Peter's dark skin comes from old folk beliefs. Medieval Europeans often imagined the devil as black-skinned.

Contemporary Customs

Each year the arrival of St. Nicholas and Black Peter is reenacted in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. A great crowd gathers to witness the arrival of the ship bearing the saint and his helper. A white horse, St. Nicholas's traditional mode of transport, stands ready to serve the saint. The music of a brass band adds to the festive atmosphere. As the gift bringers descend from the ship, the crowd easily identifies Nicholas by his red bishop's robe and hat and the white beard that flows from his face to his chest. In addition to his embroidered jacket, puffed, knee-length pants, and feathered cap, Black Peter carries a bulging sack of presents, some birch rods, and a large red book in which he has recorded the good and bad deeds of Holland's children. After greetings have been exchanged with the mayor, the saint and his helper lead a parade to Amsterdam's central plaza. There the royal family officially welcomes Holland's Christmas season gift bringers.

On St. Nicholas's Eve children may receive home visits from St. Nicholas and Black Peter, usually played by family members or friends. The pair's detailed knowledge of the children's good and bad deeds during the past year often astonishes the younger children. In recent years the increasing popularity of exchanging presents on Christmas Day has somewhat reduced the importance of St. Nicholas and Black Peter in Holland's Christmas celebrations.

Further Reading

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Joy Through the World. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984. Sansom, William. A Book of Christmas. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1994.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
References in periodicals archive ?
In recent years, the Netherlands has faced calls to eliminate a controversial, Christmastime character known as "Zwarte Piet," or Black Pete.
Sinterklaas is assisted by many Zwarte Piet ('Black Pete') helpers, which are now controversial
Based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas has become increasingly controversial in recent years as Santa's helper is known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, stems from the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas, which saw St.
Along the way, he has made shorts about everything from a young disabled African musician (the Oscar-winning "Music by Prudence") to a gay luchador (for "The New Yorker Presents") to the Dutch holiday tradition of Zwarte Piet ("Blackface").
(1) A 1998, more activist, compendium denouncing the treasured figure of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) in the Dutch Santa Claus tradition for which she wrote the foreword struck a more strident tone that in retrospect can be seen as heralding the new attitude toward such issues in the early twenty-first century.
[In Dutch tradition] they called them Zwarte Piet, the 'Black Peters' who worked as Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) helpers at Christmastime.
Anti–racism campaigners have hit out at the fesival because of the role of Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, a helper to St Nicholas.
Fer and eight black team-mates in Holland's squad posed for a photo to illustrate their disapproval over an old Dutch tradition, which sees Santa Claus helped by a companion called Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.
Plus what is the Dutch Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) controversy that has the UN so excited?