On Blackfaces, Black Faces, and Black Pete


A look at Dutch folklore and European history

So, there has been some controversy on a certain folkloristic figure in the Netherlands for the past few years. What is the problem here? In 2011, an artist called Quinsy Gario accused the depiction of Black Pete to be racist. At some point he made the case go to court and got himself arrested while protesting. In 2013 he was backed by Verene Shepherd, an influential person at the United Nations.

Black Pete1 is a figure that has long since been a part of Netherlandish folklore. To understand the situation, first we’ll dive into the history of Black Pete.

Odin or Wodan (1832) (artist unkown) - By Amalia Schoppe, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Odin or Wodan (1832) (artist unkown) – By Amalia Schoppe, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In a pre-Christian past there were several celebrations around the time of midwinter celebrations. If you’re in Europe, think of ‘weird’ local traditions like chopping down a tree and dragging it to a girl’s house, hanging diapers in a tree of a certain forest to promote good health for your baby, or just lighting a big bonfire where a lot of excess furniture and waste tends to ‘disappear’.

These and many other customs may be all that remains of a pagan past, when Jove, Odin, Wodan or whatever his name may be was still regarded as the highest in a pantheon of several gods and there were sacred places were everywhere. In these times many believed the gods regularly visited the world of the mortals. And so, at midwinter, Wodan rode his eight-legged horse over the roofs of villages while his servants roamed the villages doing Donar knows what sort of things, sometimes for the good of the people, sometimes not. Consult your local pagan about what precisely would happen here or there, things tend to differ every thirty-odd kilometres.

An integral part of these festivities would be that the young men of the community would dress up as ghosts, monsters, or whatever from another world and they would harass the local children and young women. Whatever reasons they had for that are now obscured by history, but let’s assume it was to promote fertility.

Along came Christianity. Missionaries saw a world full of barbarians and figured they had to do the lord’s work and bring the people of Europe into the fold, whether they would like it or not. It was, so to say, for the greater good. This entailed more than just bringing the new religion, it also meant the old had to disappear. Therefore heavenly columns were pulled down, sacred trees were chopped down, temples were destroyed and statues cast asunder and so on, all in the name of the lord.2 However, having no more venues to practice the old religion did not mean that the culture associated with it died out. Neither should one consider culture and religion separate in these days, nor should you do so today. Perhaps. The debate about that is still ongoing.

The Wild Hunter (linked to Wodan) (1863) - See link for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Wild Hunter (linked to Wodan) – Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld: Das festliche Jahr in Sitten, Gebräuchen und Festen der germanischen Völker. Leipzig 1863. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Back on topic, the associated culture still contained plenty of pagan and non-Christian elements. Popes were aware of these problems and devoted several lengthy bulls and letters to the subject of how to make these non-Romans into proper god-fearing church-going Christians. Now, as some of these cultural practices were rather hard to eradicate without committing large scale purges, which kind of defeats the purpose of conquering and converting lands, other methods had to be found. One of these was blending both traditions. Sainthood was one of these tools. Through this one could make a case you were not really worshiping the god Apollo, but venerating the saint St. Apollo, for example. The helpful missionary just came along and corrected the error of your ways. This blending can go quite far, such as in some Nordic countries where you will find a bishop in midwinter who is coming with a hammer in his hand on a chariot drawn by goats and all that. A sort of M. C. Hammer, you might suppose.

(insert picture of Thor saying “stop. Hammer time”)

In Christianity the idea of sainthood had developed alongside the spread of the religion. Saints in Christianity function as exemplary men or women. They lived and died a model life and death and for that grace from heaven was bestowed upon them and they became saints. Later on this process was canalised more and more through church bureaucracy, but that is another topic. Some of these saints were around ever since Christianity started to spread, others were ‘translations’ of a pagan cult. Where they came from is irrelevant for this paragraph, just that they are. One of these saints is St. Nicholas of Myra. Sounds familiar? Well, could be. He enjoys great popularity in both Catholic and Orthodox regions and has always been an all-purpose saint, for sailors, skippers, students, children, merchants, butchers, wine traders, lawyers and just about a dozen of other professions.3 He lived in Myra, modern day Turkey around the third century AD. I say around, because even in well-documented saints there can be significant leeway due to hagiography and centuries of retelling the story can warp the story.

Statue of St. Nicholas, circa 1700 - Valkenburg, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed via Wikimedia Commons
Statue of St. Nicholas, circa 1700 – Valkenburg, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed via Wikimedia Commons

The most important thing is that at some point both traditions met, of the servant of Wodan and Saint Nicholas. The conventional story is that at some point Nicholas became an adaptation and a more Christian version of the god Wodan.

Please note that the popularity of Saint Nicholas and the notion that he has companions is not exclusively related to the Netherlands or even the Dutch-speaking areas of the world, as pointed out earlier. The servant that comes with him also exists in much of the same regions, although in different forms and sometimes independent of the Saint Nicholas tradition. One could look at Bulgaria where similar traditions exist, or in Germany, where there is a Knecht Ruprecht, or in parts of France, where this person is known as Père Fouettard.

The common part of all these phenomenona is that they ultimately aren’t real. That is, they only exist by the power of those that believe in them. How can one believe in something without evidence? First of all that can happen by the power of suggestion. Many can recall the sudden apparition of presents, people running away in the distance, but not being recognisable. A second part is by camouflage. Operating in darkness or dusk can be a very easy way of not being seen. Should you however be seen, it is imperative that the impersonator is not recognised as a person. Nowadays that might be a different factor, but in ancient times communities were smaller and there was a good chance that in, say a village in the 11th century, there may have been only a handful of people in the surrounding 10 kilometres that you didn’t know, first of all because there simply were less people to know, secondly, because people tended to move less. So, disguises.

Saint Nicolas and Black Pete on the rooftop (1850) - By Jan Schenkman, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Nicholas and Black Pete on a rooftop (1850, illustrator unknown) – By Jan Schenkman, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

By now we have come to the most basic aspect of this topic. This is first of all theatrical, a series of action contrary to reality. Whether or not Black Pete is racism is not at all the question. To illustrate, there have been attempts to appease the protesters by including performers with different make-up in different colours, or just with added specks of soot. Why? The common folklore in the Netherlands says that Black Pete is black because of the chimneys he goes through to deliver presents and what not. The basic problem with this is that his costume is flawless. That is one of the many arguments flying about in this debate. However, take into account the reactions to ‘roetpieten’. Children tend to react negatively to them because they aren’t ‘the real deal’. With just a few smirches of soot they become adults dressed up as someone else, rather than Black Pete. Clearly the disguise no longer functions. If a Black Pete is to be a Black Pete its costume must reflect its unrecognizability as a fellow human you might meet on the street. Therefore the blackness on his face doesn’t resemble any skin tone. This is evidenced by video footage from the Dutch Antilles and Suriname, where the majority of the population is black. Unlike what you might expect, they too dress up in costume and they paint themselves, sometimes black, but sometimes other colours, varying with local traditions. The key part in this is that the colour of the ‘Black Pete’ is apparently not meant to be a resemblance of skin colour. You can see it as a reflection of skin colour, but as noted by plenty of sad faces of Dutch children that is not the way things work.

So, then what of his image? One is that by his servant ship Black Pete is a supposed reference to slavery and has racist aspects to it. However, the skin colour of Black Pete is irrelevant as already proven by having skin colour function independently of the role of Black Pete. One of the accusations is directed to his servile attitude and in some cases his limited command of the Dutch language. This last issue has long since no more been a part of the depiction of Black Pete, as far as I know there hasn’t been a single Black Pete with deficient speech skills all my life.4 There have been numerous instances where friends of mine did hear some mumbled Dutch, sometimes wilfully mangled, sometimes mixed with an Antillean or Caribbean accent. However, is vocabulary not just another tool in the actor’s hands to portray a character and to lend a hit of exotics to the character?

Saint Nicholas and his Petes in Schiedam (2009) - By Arch (own work) public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Nicholas and Petes in Schiedam (2009) – By Arch (own work) public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another aspect is that Black Pete is supposedly a blackface. A blackface is a white person masking his appearance as a black person. However, this tradition has never existed in the Netherlands as far as I know. To connect Black Pete to blackface is therefore invalid, in my opinion. Another clear distinction is that in blackfaces the original skin colour of the blackface is still visible in his makeup. With Black Pete that is not the case however. If properly grimoired you cannot find the original skin colour of its wearer. There is one more point. The Anglo-Saxon world had extensive colonial songs and a significant black population. The Netherlands had no significant 19th-century African possessions. What we did have was Indonesia, Suriname, the Antilles and a few other islands. Migration from these countries however didn’t pick up until after post-war periods, when the blackface shows were already on the decline. Also, most of the Dutch people know that the skin colour of black persons and Petes do not match and usually they are only referred in the heat of the argument, as is happening now, or by children. One aspect of proper parenting here however is pointing out that skin tones come in variations and that Black Pete is not a black person.

Take note however that Black Pete is not a singular person. He exists by the grace of everyone believing in him and is shaped by everyone who imagines him. If you see in him an extension of centuries of slavery in his continued servitude in a state of ignorant bliss, then that is what you see. However, if you see in him a dedicated employee attempting to overcome every challenge thrown at him and his company to fulfil his ultimate goal of bringing presents to children, that view is no less valid.

Black Pete, the power is yours!5


Een goede raad
De Passievrucht
De voorlezer
Kasper Nijhoff

Kasper Nijhoff

R-man studies art history in some backwater town where bicycles are more numerous than people. There, he flees into imaginary realms and elaborate self-made constructs of how one could read books and is still waiting for his Hogwarts letter.
Kasper Nijhoff

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  1. In colloquial Dutch he is named ‘Zwarte Piet’, mostly simply addressed as ‘Piet’, a common, but slightly old-fashioned men’s name 

  2. I would like to say that I do not condemn Christianity, or paganism or whatever. That is not the topic at hand. 

  3. Info taken from Jo Claes, Alfons Claes and Kathy Vincke, Sanctus: Meer dan 500 heiligen herkennen, 2002, p. 132. Catholic Encyclopedia may however be an accurate English source. 

  4. I’m a 90’s person, so I cannot account for older depictions of him. However, remember that this is in large part a children’s occasion, so the collective memory span tends to be no longer than ten years. That means that without parental intervention to tell them about past celebrations the formula is reinvented roughly every ten to fifteen years. However, even when looking at film footage of the ‘official’ arrival of 1978 everyone is perfectly capable of displaying a full command of the Dutch language. 

  5. Insert awkward Captain Planet reference here.