Op zoek naar Zwarte Piet
door Frits Booy
Please find an English translation of a summary of Frits Booy's book
which is about a search for the origin, the evolvement
and the purpose of the helper of Sinterklaas.
The summary has been approved by the author.
The summary has been approved by the author.
(Frits Booystudeerde Nederlandse taal- en letterkunde (mo-b) aan de lerarenopleiding te Den Haag. Hij was leraar Nederlands aan Het Baarnsch Lyceum tot 2001 en vanaf 2000 bestuursvoorzitter van de Stichting Geschiedenis Kinder- en Jeugdliteratuur. Hij publiceert artikelen over oude kinderboeken en de geschiedenis van het sinterklaasfeest. Hij is bestuurslid van de Stichting Nationaal Sint Nicolaas Comité en mede-auteur van Sint Nicolaas van A tot Z.)
Frits Booy's book will be for sale at the Sinterklaas event on December 1st.
Een speurtocht naar de herkomst, de ontwikkeling en de betekenis van de dienaar van Sinterklaas.
A search for the origin, the evolvement and the purpose of the helper of Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas has been around longer than Zwarte Piet. Because of the reformation in the Netherlands, his Roman-Catholic status changed into a much appreciated folklore figure. In the Netherlands and Flanders, a dark helper appeared that would take over (!) the threatening and punishing role of his master. Zwarte Piet shows similarities to devilish figures like Ruprecht, Krampus and Beelzebub, traditionally accompanying Sint Nicolaas in other countries. He also looked a lot like the domestic bogeymen ‘Bullebak’, Haantje Pik, and‘Bietebauw’ who were all since long used to keep the youth on the straight and narrow.
In the Netherlands and Flanders, a helper to Sinterklaas was only introduced after 1840. In other Germanic countries and several East European countries, a black devilish-looking helper has been around since the 15th century. In France, a tall, white and scary looking man was introduced in the 16th century. All of them, however, were meant to keep the children from misbehaving. There are many different theories that are trying to explain the origin of these century-old helpers of Sint Nicolaas in and outside the Netherlands.
The Germanic explanation
In Germany, a Scientist (Johann Grimm) believed that Wodan, the Upper-God, was accompanied by two black ravens. Wodan would send these ravens down to the earth to check if our predecessors were living a proper life. When Christianity had settled for good, Wodan was replaced by the Roman-Catholic church for the holy Nicolaas, Bishop of Myra.
According to another scientist (Brom 1898), Wodan was believed to signify the‘bad’ and would be pictured as a black servant who was tied to Sint Nicolaas’ horse. Wodan himself was demonized in general to ridicule the heathen divinities to make them less fearful.
Some elements we recognize are the Germanic God, Oel, who would look through chimneys to see how the people would live. The black smoke made his face black over time. About Wodan’s servant, Eckhart or Ruprecht, it was said that they would fill the boots of well-behaving people with gold. In the Middle-Ages, storms and rain in fall and winter were often explained as being Wodan’s army of black faced Germanic predecessors racing through the sky.
The birch-rod is often explained by the Germanic fertility rod. Druids would hit twelve year old boys to initiate them into manhood.
The Christian explanation
In the Middle-Ages, the Roman Catholic Church represented their main objective, the dualism, to the mostly analphabetic followers by figures. The Good was represented by white and the Bad by black; Satan or the Devil. During those years, the Black (because of the black pitch from hell) was a name used to refer to the Devil, hence his nicknames ‘Pietje Pek’ and ‘Zwarte Piet’. The devil was also believed to travel from his spirit world to mankind through the chimney and take corrupted souls in a bag to the mouth of hell.
In some legends, it has been told that the holy Sint Nicolaas was fighting the devil and ultimately subject him. Sint Nicolaas then keeps the devil chained to his horse so he can control him.Over time, the devil changed more into the role of a servant. He was often used to scare naughty children threatening to hit them with a birch-rod. A birch-rod in those years was a commonly used tool for school teachers to discipline children.
In 1420, you would see devilish servants of Sint Nicolaas in Switzerland. This spread all over middle Europe and in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. They got nicknames like: Ruprecht, Beelzebub, Pelsebock, Krampus, Klaubauf, Hans Muff and Schwartze Peter (Zwarte Piet).
Severe battle for the correctness of these two theories
Roman-Catholic scientists almost demanded that these figures would be explained by the Roman-Catholic religion and holy culture. Sint Nicolaas (portraying the Good) subjecting the devil (portraying the Bad) to him.Many details of this theory support this belief.
Weaknesses of this theory are that no explanation is being given for the fact that in many central European countries, the devilish figure has taken on a more important role then Sint Nicolaas and in Germany, the Nicolaas developed into a forbidding figure scaring the children.
However, especially in the Netherlands and Flanders, many unexplained traditions raise only more questions. Why does Sinterklaas ride a white horse? Why does he ride on the roof tops? Why does he do all this with a servant handing out gifts and candy? And why does he throw all these presents through the chimney? These unanswered questions prove that you can’t simply ignore the Germanic explanation.
A third, pre-Germanic explanation
Since 1995, there is another sensational theory about the origin of Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet and even Santa Claus.
Before the Germanic era, people in Europe had a very strong connection with nature. Because a lot of that could not be explained, they believed that almost everything had a soul. The main character in this was the God of Nature, Herne. This character was often seen as the personification of fertility. The people closest to him were the Shaman, a kind of medicine man or priest which were the predecessors of the Germanic druids and the Christian priests.
Because this picture didn’t fit the image Christianity tried to portray, the heathen God Herne and his personification, the Shaman, were transformed into the personification of Satan. This way, Herne was transformed into the Bad. In this form, this figure showed up in several areas as the companion of Sint Nicolaas.
A fourth theory
According to writer, Anton van Duinkerken (1948), Bishop Nicolaas of Myra, bought an Ethiopian slave who had become a Christian with the Christian name, Petrus. He was called Piter. Nicolaas gave him back his freedom and out of gratitude, this Piter served the bishop the rest of his life. However, nothing in even the oldest literature and drawings of Bishop Nicolaas, can you find anything about such a servant.
A fifth theory
According to Hoek (1960), Zwarte Piet is the personification of the dark moon or better, the new moon. The dark figure would have put the full moon in his bag and would throw candies depicting the stars. In Czech and Slovakia Sint Nicolaas appeared with a black figure, the devil (new moon) and a white figure, an angel (full moon) or the Good which in the Netherlands, changed into Sinterklaas himself. This theory however, cannot be proven.
Outside of these different theories, there are several other mostly folkloristic figures that alone or together influenced the appearance and functioning of Zwarte Piet. They seem to come from the belief in bad spirits and fit the attention for the upper-world or supernatural and fantasy figures like they were often collected, researched and published in especially German romanticism.
For centuries long, they used forbidding figures to keep the youth on the straight and narrow. They threatened children with spankings, drowning, taking them to a dark cave and many other things!
Sint Maarten showed up in certain areas in Flanders as a sort of Sinterklaas. He had a black servant called Nicodemus. He threatened to spank children with a birch-rod or put them in a bag.
Many references to Zwarte Piet seem to come from Germanic countries. There are stories about ‘the Black Man’, ‘the Child Eater’, ‘Piet de Smeerpoets’, ‘the Chimney Sweeper’ or the Zwarte Pieten card game. All have the same similarity of scaring children and trying to keep them on the right path.
What is remarkable is that in the card game, Sinterklaas servant is nowhere pictured on the cards. There are however, pictures of the devil, a chimney sweeper or black person on the cards. This card game has been around since 1811 and played even at the Royal Palace in France in 1855.
On 19th century pictures, you often see how Sint Nicolaas is being accompanied by a tall, skinny white man dressed in a black coat and a strange sort of three-cornered hat. He is called Le Frere Fouettard. Again, the similarity with other countries was the intention of this personage which was to punish misbehaving children with a birch-rod.
Another French story tells about Croque Mitaine who would put naughty children in a bag to eat them later.
THE ERA WITHOUT ZWARTE PIET
In the Netherlands, Sint Nicolaas was only accompanied by a black servant since 1840. Before that, you had a custom where boys with blackened faces would go door to door looking for naughty children. This however, stemmed from a Germanic fertility rite which gradually incorporated into the Sint Nicolaas culture. The boys tried to impress the girls with this ritual.
Before 1840, Sint Nicolaas acted alone and also primarily invisible. Because of the strong influence of the strong reformed state church, he wasn’t allowed to fulfill his public role the way he did in several other European countries. Since he acted more or less invisible, a servant was not really necessary.
Sinterklaas is starting to appear
At the end of the 18th century, Sinterklaas is finally treading out in the open but not as the child-friendly figure we know now. Initially, he was described as wearing animal hides with fiery eyes and wearing chains and again, a birch-rod. This shows that Sint Nicolaas had been replaced by a devilish figure with a clear link to the German history. This way, children were scared to behave properly while well-behaving children were rewarded.
Around that time two important changes happened in the Netherlands. The Roman-Catholic influence returned including the honoring of the saints which made it easier for Sint Nicolaas to return from obscurity. Of course, Sint Nicolaas could no longer be seen as poorly behaving, improperly dressed with a scary demeanor. Thus, the idea was born to portray Sinterklaas as a friendly and wise old gentleman. The second change was in the educational system where scaring tactics were no longer deemed the appropriate way to punish children. New pedagogical theories forced a shift in the treatment of children which opened the doors to a new Sinterklaas.
A BLACK SERVANT SHOWS UP!
Of course this civilized Sinterklaas could no longer do the hard work so he needed a servant. The first appearance of Sinterklaas with a (black) servant was in 1839 in Limburg but no details for this servant were further documented.
Around 1848 a booklet came out by the Amsterdam teacher Jan Schenkman. The booklet is typical for these years of romance in the Dutch culture where the development of feeling and imagination were so important. Sinterklaas came from Spain on a steamboat for the first time and although referenced, no name was given for his servant yet.
In this first version of the booklet, the pictures are very primitive and show the servant with a brown face and a sort of tropical outfit. He is carrying a bag but no rod. In one of the prints, they are traveling on a brown horse and arrive by hot-air balloon.
The second edition
Around 1850, a second version of the books was published. Several changes have been made such as the professional pictures, the servant who is now black with black curly hair while dressed in a typical 16th century Spanish page outfit and Sinterklaas leaving the country now by stream train. In this version it is still, however, Sinterklaas who is doing the punishing of the children and puts the children in the bag.
ORIGIN OF THE OUTFIT AND LOOKS OF THE BLACK SERVANT
In the 16th century, it became common to have young boys and men serving the nobility and royals. Many of these men were recruited from the Moorish population in Spain or Mauretania, North Africa. These men were dressed in colorful page costumes as we know from our Zwarte Piet. Unfortunately, many of these men were forced to serve the nobility and royalty and sometimes had their legs chained together so they couldn’t escape. This phenomenon took place until far into the 19th century but without any connection to Sinterklaas.
In the Netherlands, there were many Germanic influences during these years. Only because of Schenkman’s books, Sinterklaas is coming from Spain. However, in Flanders Sint Niklaas and Zwarte Piet are coming from heaven.
THE MYSTERY OF ZWARTE PIET
It is quite plausible that Schenkman used the Germanic historical stories and combined them with the way he thought servants would look. In order to make the story more befitting the modern times, he gave the civilized Sint Nicolaas an equally civilized servant. That is why the Dutch Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are more civilized then his Germanic predecessors.
So, although his costume and appearance may be new, Zwarte Piet is not a new figure. Not only because of his bag and rod but also because of his black face does he seem to be directly related to the scary figures of Ruprecht, Beelzebub, Baas Kinderschrik and many other stories. Historically, those figures would bring naughty children into a black cave, a monstrous stomach or straight to hell. With Zwarte Piet, this horrible place would be Spain, most likely referring to the country that was occupying the Netherlands for almost eighty years.
ZWARTE PIET TODAY
Although Zwarte Piet used to carry a bag and rod, nowadays the bag is only used to transport the presents and since 1965 the rod seems to have disappeared under the influence of modern pedagogy and changes in upbringing and education.
Since 1960 several Zwarte Pieten are escorting Sinterklaas. Children are less naïve and understand that Sinterklaas with one Piet will have a hard time doing all that work. During these years, he also changes from a strict and serious figure to one that is helpful, child friendly and likes to make jokes, do tricks and plays music. In many aspects, Zwarte Piet is now playing a more important role then Sinterklaas.
CRITIQUE OF ZWARTE PIET
Since approximately 1980, the appearance of Zwarte Piet and the dependency of his ‘superior white Sinterklaas’ is getting more and more critique. Certain people consider Zwarte Piet synonymous for slavery, racism and discrimination. They believe he should change or disappear altogether.
Unfortunately, this is based on misconceptions and improper education on this topic. As being explained in the first couple of pages of this summary, the background of Zwarte Piet has more to do with the representation of the devil or ‘the Bad’. Throughout many centuries this has transformed into what we know today. Only his costume is related to the pages as they were common in the 18th and 19th century and certainly not their skin color. That seems to have its history in the culture from devil to Zwarte Piet. The arguments of discrimination are therefore not valid
The current Zwarte Pieten are well behaved, nicely dressed and child friendly assistants to Sinterklaas. They are playing nowadays a very varied role in which the attention is more with them then with Sinterklaas. That has made the Sinterklaas celebration more appealing and varied, giving it a stronger place in the Dutch tradition and culture with a great future.
Long live Zwarte Piet!