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When growing up in Europe, one discovers that Jolly Old Saint Nick, aka Santa Claus, has a variety of different variant identities. In the UK, he’s Father Christmas, and on the continent, he’s Sinterklaas and a bunch of other people. The story always changes, slightly. In Europe, Santa Claus doesn’t come from the North Pole, and his elves are much more than that. One captivating variation comes from The Netherlands, where Santa had an assistant named Zwarte Piet (Black Peter):

Here’s the thing: his face and hands are painted black. Some will point out that he is the one climbing up and down the chimneys delivering the presents, or that he is one of the three wise men. A more realistic tale is that of a 4th century Turkish orphan who received help from the historical Nicholas and out of gratitude helps out his benefactor in turn. To the Dutch people his darker complexion seemed black.

More disturbing is the 19th century recreation of Black Peter as a Moor whom the good Christian Saint met in Spain and took as helper, servant, or slave. The costume Black Peter wears today suggests the colonial image of a black slave, and he is sometimes unashamedly depicted as a golliwog figure. There is no racial bias or intent in the merrymaking of Belgian and Dutch kids today. Still, as long as Black Peter accompanies his white master he will generate discussions about racism and colonialism.

Further complicating the issue is Black Peter’s other dark side, for he is the one who executes any punishments Sinterklaas might judge in order. He shares this aspect with the company Saint Nicholas keeps in other countries. These associates range from mildly threatening to serial-child-killer kind of evil.

So there you go: behave, or Black Peter will get you. As a child, one of many rites of passage would the time that you figure out Santa is just a myth. Yet, imagine growing up in a bunch of places where Santa isn’t the same. As a kid, which one are you supposed to believe in? The jolly fat man your parents tell you about, or the different things you hear from other kids, which, eventually, lead to nightmares?

(and yes, that’s me in the above picture, bawling my eyes out.) 

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One Comment

  1. I grew up in England and was told about Black Peter. My Dad would tell us Black Peter would take us away, but I was never afraid of him.
    Perhaps I felt I was good?


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