The History of Europe's Most Controversial Christmas Character

Some cities and schools are changing how they portray “Black Pete.” Others won’t budge.

This November, a group of white extremists in the Netherlands blocked a highway to keep anti-racist protesters away from a parade that had blackface. A week later, ten people wearing blackface barged into a primary school in Utrecht, telling some teachers to “go back to your own country.” Within another week, three men in blackface came into an Amsterdam city council meeting and sat in the back until officials removed them.

In all of these instances, the people in blackface were dressed like Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” a prominent Dutch Christmas character. For years, white Netherlanders have defended him as a fun, harmless tradition in which people dress up in blackface and march in parades. Meanwhile, Dutch people of color—including children—brace themselves to be called “Black Pete” on the streets, in their schools, and at their jobs every holiday season.

Starting in November and lasting through early December, hundreds of Dutch men and women dressed as Black Pete march in parades around the country along with Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus. Black Pete is Santa’s helper, and every season adults visit children’s homes and schools dressed as these characters to hand out presents and treats (in the early 20th century, Pete was also supposed to drag naughty kids to Spain; that part’s been dropped). Stores stock up with Black Pete costumes and merchandise—even selling cupcakes with his face on it.

European Santas have long had menacing companions like Krampus or Belsnickle who punish wicked children with much more than a lump of coal. In the Netherlands, the idea that Santa has a sinister helper goes back centuries. However, the modern Black Pete as he is portrayed today is a more recent invention.

Read how Krampus, the Christmas ‘devil,’ became cool.

The Black Pete that people dress up as now was popularized in a mid-19th century children’s book by Jan Schenkman, says Joke Hermes, a professor of media, culture, and citizenship at Inholland University. She notes that Schenkman was very interested in the Dutch royal family members, “one of whom bought a slave in a slave market in Cairo in the mid-19th century.” This person, she suggests, could’ve helped inspire the character of Black Pete.

“It’s completely obvious that [Schenkman’s Black Pete] was a little enslaved child,” says Anousha Nzume, an actress, activist, and author of the book Hallo Witte Mensen (“Hello White People”). “Because he even had a chain on his foot.”

While protests against Black Pete occur every holiday season, some Dutch cities are seeing a pro-blackface backlash by white supporters of the Christmas tradition. - PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN VAN HASSELT, CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Before the Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863, the country was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It grew prosperous by selling enslaved people to the United States or sending them to work in Dutch colonies, and some nobles “gifted” each other with enslaved black children, who are shown in paintings wearing colorful, Moorish clothing similar to Black Pete’s.

Thanks to the work of activists like Quinsy Gario, who started the project Zwarte Piet is Racisme (“Black Pete is racism”), some cities and schools have begun phasing blackface out of their celebrations. So far this has involved changing Pete’s image rather than getting rid of him completely, a “solution” that Gario doesn’t necessarily think is adequate.\

For instance, Amsterdam’s Christmas parade recently changed Black Pete to Schoorsteen Piet, or “Chimney Pete.” Organizers have replaced his blackface paint with soot, and done away with Black Pete’s wig, gold earrings, and exaggerated red lips. They’ve also changed his Moorish outfit so he looks more like a 16th-century Spanish nobleman (in some versions of the tradition, Pete is from Spain). In a statement to the Dutch news site NL Times, a spokesperson for the city’s parade explained why the old costume had to go: “We looked at artwork all the way back to the 17th century. Wealthy Amsterdammers would dress up a black child in these outfits and give them as gifts.”

Yet as the movement against Black Pete gains more national attention, a pro-blackface backlash is quickly bubbling into public spaces. At the incidences in the primary school in Utrecht and the city council meeting in Amsterdam, people showed up in blackface specifically because those two places had stopped using it in their Christmas celebrations. In other towns, people are digging in their heels, insisting that their parades will stick with “tradition.”

Many white Netherlanders are still “in denial over our role in slavery,” Hermes says, and thus reject the idea that Black Pete could be connected to it. Yet for a lot of people, the link is both painful and unavoidable. In 2015, the United Nations urged the Netherlands to get rid of Black Pete because many see it as a “vestige of slavery.”

So far, most of the country has ignored the UN’s request. But in the Netherlands and abroad, the movement against Black Pete is growing.

 

Lead image: Dutch Christmas celebrations often include Santa's helper "Zwarte Piet" ("Black Pete"). While many defend the character as a fun, harmless tradition, a growing number of voices are calling it racist and offensive. - Photograph by Peter Dejong, AP

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