Zwarte Piet (Dutch: [ˈzʋɑrtə ˈpit]; French: Père Fouettard; Luxembourgish: Schwaarze Péiter; West Frisian: Swarte Pyt), also known in English by the translated name Black Pete, is the companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas; French: Saint-Nicolas; West Frisian: Sinteklaas; Luxembourgish: Kleeschen) in the folklore of the Low Countries. The earliest known illustration of the character comes from an 1850 book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman in which he was depicted as a black Moor from Spain.[1]

A person in costume as Zwarte Piet

Those portraying the traditional version of Zwarte Piet usually put on dark make-up and colourful Renaissance attire in addition to curly wigs and bright red lipstick. Traditionally, Zwarte Piet distributes candy to well-behaved children, and punished the others – the punishment part fell out of use in the 1960s.[2][3]

In the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent in Belgium, the character has been increasingly controversial since the early 2010s and decreasingly prevalent at municipal holiday celebrations in the years that have followed. It has been argued that the character instills a negative image of black people into children from an early age; parallels have also been drawn to the American blackface.[3] As of 2021, a revised version, dubbed Sooty Piet (Dutch: Roetveegpiet), has become more common than the traditional variant at public events, in addition to in television specials, films, social media, and advertising.[4] Sooty Piet features the natural skin tone of the actors playing the character with soot marks created by streaks of dark makeup on their faces.


Strooigoed and kruidnoten mix for scattering

The Zwarte Piet character is part of the annual Feast of St. Nicholas that is celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaasavond, which is known as St. Nicholas' Eve in English) in the Netherlands, Curaçao and Aruba. This is when presents and sweets are traditionally distributed to children. The holiday is celebrated on 6 December in Belgium.[5] The Zwarte Piet characters appear only in the weeks before the Feast of Saint Nicholas, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by boat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain). The tasks of the various Zwarte Piets (Zwarte Pieten in Dutch) are mostly to amuse children and to distribute kruidnoten and pepernoten in the Netherlands, tangerines and speculoos in Belgium, and other strooigoed (special Sinterklaas-themed sweets) to those who come to meet the saint as he visits schools, stores, and other places.



The Dutch writer Arnold Jan Scheer has researched European traditions involving Sinterklaas and his assistants. He has published several books about the origin of these traditions and claims the origin of ones with black skin dates back to 1,100 BC in Northern Europe when pagan Shamans put on animal skins and painted their faces black with soot to portray mythical creatures of the underworld. According to Jan, these rituals evolved differently across Europe and eventually led to the development of characters including: Krampus, Schmutzli, Knecht Ruprecht, and Zwarte Piet.[6]

According to Hélène Adeline Guerber and other historians,[7][8] the origin of Sinterklaas and his helpers have been linked by some to the Wild Hunt of Odin. While riding the white horse Sleipnir, he flew through the air as the leader of the Wild Hunt. He was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn.[9] These helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimneys of the homes they visited to tell Odin about the good and bad behavior of the mortals below.[10][11]

Illustration from Jan Schenkman's book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht

The Saint Nicholas tradition contains a number of elements that are not ecclesiastical in origin.[12][13] In medieval iconography, Saint Nicholas is sometimes presented as taming a chained demon, who may or may not be black. However, no hint of a companion, demon, servant, or any other human or human-like fixed companion to the Saint is found in visual and textual sources from the Netherlands from the 16th until the 19th century.[14] According to a long-standing theory first proposed by Karl Meisen,[15] Zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe were originally presented as one or more enslaved demons forced to assist their captor. These chained and fire-scorched demons may have been redeveloped as black-skinned humans during the early 19th-century in the Netherlands in the likeness of Moors who work as servants for Saint Nicholas.[16] Others believe Zwarte Piet to be a continuation of a custom in which people with blackface appeared in winter solstice rituals.[17]

One or more demons working as helpers for the saint can still be found in various Austrian, German, Swiss, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, and Polish Saint Nicholas traditions in the characters of Krampus, Père Fouettard, Schmutzli, Perchta, Knecht Ruprecht, Rubbels, Hanstrapp, Little Babushka, Pelzebock, Klaubauf, and Belsnickel. These companions of Saint Nicholas are often depicted as a group of closely related figures who accompany Saint Nicholas through the territories formerly controlled by the Holy Roman Empire. The characters act as foils to the benevolent gift-giver, or strict disciplinarians who threaten to thrash or abduct disobedient children. Mythologist Jacob Grimm associated the character with the pre-Christian spirit kobold, who could be either benevolent or malicious.

The introduction of Zwarte Piet did coincide, by and large, with a change in the depiction of the Sinterklaas character. Prior to this change, he was often quite strict toward poorly behaved children and often presented as a sort of bogeyman.[13] Many of the terrifying characteristics that were later associated with Zwarte Piet were often attributed to him.[18] The presentation of a holy man in this light was troubling for both teachers and priests. After the introduction of Zwarte Piet as Sinterklaas' servant, both characters adopted more gentle personas.[19]

The lyrics of older traditional Sinterklaas songs, still sung today, warn that Sinterklaas and his assistant will leave well-behaved children presents but punish those who have been naughty. They might even take very poorly behaved children to their homeland of Spain in burlap sacks where, according to legend, they'll be forced to assist them in their workshop for an entire season or longer. These songs and stories also warn that a child who has been only slightly naughty will receive a bundle of birch twigs or a lump of coal instead of gifts.

Development and depiction in the 19th and 20th centuriesEdit

In 1850, the Amsterdam-based primary school teacher Jan Schenkman published the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht ("Saint Nicholas and his Servant" in English). It's widely considered the first time a servant character was included in a printed version of the Saint Nicholas narrative. The servant is depicted as a page who appears as a dark-skinned person wearing clothes associated with Moors. The book also established another mythos that would become standard: the intocht or "entry" ceremony of Saint Nicholas and his servant (then still nameless) involving a steamboat. Schenkman has the two characters arrive from Spain with no reference made to Nicholas' historical homeland of Myra (Lycia, which was located in what is now modern-day Turkey). In the 1850 version of Schenkman's book, the servant is depicted in simple white clothing with red hems. Beginning with the second edition in 1858, the page is illustrated in a much more colorful page costume.

A children's book from 1915, titled "In the Bag: the grave fate of naughty Grietje and Pietje"

The book remained in print until 1950 and has had considerable influence on the current celebration.[20] Although in Schenkman's book the servant was nameless, author Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm provided him with the name "Pieter-me-knecht" in a handwritten note to E.J. Potgieter in 1850.[21] In 1884, Alberdingk Thijm recalled that, when he was a child in 1828, he had attended a Saint Nicholas celebration in the house of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant and consul living in Amsterdam. On this occasion, a man portraying Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by another described as "Pieter de Knecht ..., a frizzy haired Negro" who brought a large basket filled with presents.

In 1833, an Amsterdam-based magazine printed a humorous reference to "Pietermanknecht" while describing the fate that those who had sneaked out of their houses to attend that year's St. Nicholas celebrations were supposed to have endured after returning home.[22] In 1859, the Dutch newspaper De Tijd noticed that Saint Nicholas was often accompanied by "a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself".[23] In the 1891 book Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the servant is named Pieter. However, up until 1920, several additional publications gave the character other names and depictions that varied considerably.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet visiting the fishing village of Volendam and giving candy to kids, 1938.
Josephine Baker meeting Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (V&D Amsterdam, 22 November 1957)
Several performers in Sooty Piet costumes during a 2016 celebration in Amsterdam

According to a story from the Legenda Aurea, retold by Eelco Verwijs in his 1863 monograph Sinterklaas, one of the miraculous deeds performed by Saint Nicholas after his death consisted of freeing a boy from slavery at the court of the "Emperor of Babylon" and delivering him back to his parents.[24] No mention is made of the boy's skin color. However, over the course of the 20th century, narratives started to surface that claimed Zwarte Piet was a former slave who had been freed by the saint and had subsequently become his lifelong companion.[25]

One version of the folklore surrounding the character suggests that Zwarte Piet's blackness is due to a permanent layer of soot on his body acquired during his many trips down the chimneys of the homes he visits.[13]

Development and depiction in the 21st centuryEdit

Because of ongoing controversies surrounding the character, many schools, businesses, and other organizations across the Netherlands have begun changing Zwarte Piet's clothing and makeup or phasing the character out entirely. The most common variation has been dubbed Sooty Piet (in Dutch: roetveegpiet). This version features the page outfit but without the curly wig, earrings, or lipstick. Smeared on makeup simulates soot smudges and an actor portraying the character retains their own natural skin tone.

The portrayals of both Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet can also further vary from region to region. Until 2020, the holiday was celebrated in the Netherlands Antilles where Sinterklaas was often played by a white-painted actor who was accompanied by several others dressed as Zwarte Piet.[26]

Notable events during the 21st centuryEdit

Throughout the latter half of the 2010s, communities and various organizations across the Netherlands and elsewhere opted to use either the traditional version of Zwarte Piet in celebrations or variations, most commonly the sooty version.[27] Some have included both. These decisions have resulted in protests and violent incidents involving pro-Piet demonstrators (those who endorse the traditional version of the character) and anti-Piet demonstrators (those who endorse a revised version of the character or doing away with him altogether).[28]

In 2015, the Bijenkorf department store chain opted to replace holiday displays featuring Zwarte Piet with a golden-skinned version instead.[29] Elsewhere, one in three Dutch primary schools announced plans to alter the character's appearance in their celebrations.[30] Nickelodeon in the Netherlands also decided to use a racially mixed group of actors to portray Piet in their holiday broadcasts instead of white people wearing dark make-up.[31] RTL Nederland made a similar decision in the autumn of 2016 and replaced the characters with actors with soot on their faces.[32]

However, in 2018, several members of a production crew refused to work on Dutch broadcaster NTR's nationally televised celebration because of a decision to alter the character.[33] Several Dutch entertainers have also continued to use the traditional version of the character. Among them are the singers Leon Krijgsman and Herman van Doorn who released songs promoted with music videos featuring Piets played by white actors.[34]

In November 2017, a group of anti-Piet demonstrators were prevented from attending a demonstration during a nationally televised celebration in the town of Dokkum after their vehicles were blocked on the A7 motorway by pro-Piet demonstrators, 34 of whom were later charged and found guilty of obstructing traffic.[35] During intocht celebrations throughout November 2018, violent incidents took place in the cities and towns of Nijmegen, The Hague, Leeuwarden, Den Helder, Rotterdam, and elsewhere. In Eindhoven, anti-Piet demonstrators were surrounded by an estimated group of 250 people described as "football hooligans" who attacked them with eggs and shouted racist insults. A similar protest in Tilburg led to the arrest of 44 pro-Piet demonstrators.[36]

In 2019, it was decided that the nationally televised arrival of Sinterklaas hosted by Apeldoorn would feature only sooty versions.[37] That November, a group called Kick Out Zwarte Piet were attacked during a meeting. Windows were smashed, nearby vehicles were vandalized, and fireworks were shot into the building where the group was planning protests in 12 communities that still feature traditional versions of the character.[38] In June 2020, American broadcaster NBC and Netflix opted to remove footage of a character dressed as Zwarte Piet from an episode of The Office. Series creator Greg Daniels released a statement saying that "blackface is unacceptable and making the point so graphically is hurtful and wrong. I am sorry for the pain that caused."[39]

Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated in a parliamentary debate on 5 June 2020 that he had changed his opinion on the issue and now better understands why many people consider the character's appearance to be racist.[40] In August 2020, Facebook updated its policies to ban depictions of "blackface" on its Facebook and Instagram platforms, including traditional "blackface" depictions of Zwarte Piet.[41] In October 2020, Google banned advertising featuring Zwarte Piet, including soot versions without "blackface".[42] Additional companies followed suit, among them Bol, Amazon, and Coolblue, who each decided to remove traditional Zwarte Piet products and promotions from their services.[43][44] In November 2020, Vereniging van Openbare Bibliotheken, a national association of public libraries, also announced that they were in the process of removing books featuring Zwarte Piet from library shelves.[45]

Public opinion in the Low Countries and worldwideEdit

Advertisement from the early 1960s featuring Zwarte Piet

Owing to the character's depiction, which often involves white actors and volunteers dressing up in dark make-up while wearing black wigs and large earrings, the traditions surrounding Zwarte Piet became increasingly controversial beginning in the late 20th century.[46] The public debate surrounding the figure can be described as polarized, with some protesters considering the figure to be an insult to their ancestry and supporters considering the character to be an inseparable part of their cultural heritage.[47]</ref>

In popular cultureEdit

A character named Nate dressed as Zwarte Piet during a scene in a December 2012 episode of The Office (US). It was later removed from Netflix and the NBC streaming service Peacock.[39]

Characterizations of Zwarte Piet were featured in the third season of the American comedy-drama television series Atlanta in 2022.[48] While Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) and Earn (Donald Glover) are on tour in Amsterdam, they encounter multiple people dressed in blackface and celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas.[49]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Forbes, Bruce David (2007). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press. p. 54. With Arab influence remaining among the Spanish population, Sinter Klaas had a Moorish assistant named Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, an orphan who was pictured at times wearing a turban and a golden earring. Alternative explanations for his dark skin were that it was soot from sliding down chimneys or that he was a representation of the devil, who Saint Nicholas was able to conquer and force into his service. In annual observances over the years, Zwarte Piet was portrayed by a person in black face, and today some cultural commentators have criticized the legends and representations of Black Peter for racial stereotyping.
  2. ^ Vermuyen, Cleo; Schuiling, Nienke (4 December 2019). "Zwarte Piet is vooral een spiegel van de tijdsgeest". University of Groningen.
  3. ^ a b "100 drogredenen ontkracht". Kick Out Zwarte Piet. Retrieved 23 March 2023.
  4. ^ "Sooty Piets take over, blackface out of favour in most towns and cities". DutchNews. 9 November 2021.
  5. ^ "Netherlands". St. Nicholas Center.
  6. ^ The Saint, the Moor, and the Devil
  7. ^ Door Ernie Ramaker (3 December 2011). "Wat heeft Sinterklaas met Germaanse mythologie te maken?" (in Dutch). Retrieved 18 November 2013.
  8. ^ "American Christmas Origins". Retrieved 18 November 2013.
  9. ^ Hélène Adeline Guerber (d. 1929). "huginn and muninn "Myths of the Norsemen" from". Retrieved 26 November 2012.
  10. ^ Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 12 October 2011. Retrieved 29 November 2007. Almekinders, Jaap (2005). "Wodan en de oorsprong van het Sinterklaasfeest (Wodan and the origin of Saint Nicolas' festivity)" (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 28 November 2011. Christina, Carlijn (2006). "St. Nicolas and the tradition of celebrating his birthday". Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 28 November 2011.
  11. ^ "Artikel: sinterklaas and Germanic mythology" (in Dutch). 3 December 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2012.
  12. ^ "Piet en Sint - veelgestelde vragen". Meertens Instituut. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  13. ^ a b c "Sinterklaas rituelen en tradities". Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  14. ^ E. Boer-Dirks, "Nieuw licht op Zwarte Piet. Een kunsthistorisch antwoord op de vraag naar de herkomst", Volkskundig Bulletin, 19 (1993), pp. 1-35; 2-4, 10, 14.
  15. ^ In Nikolauskult und Nikolausbrauch im Abendlande: Eine kultgeographisch-volkskundliche Untersuchung (Düsseldorf, 1931).
  16. ^ "Jan Schenkman" (in Dutch). Retrieved 28 November 2010.
  17. ^ Bas 2013, pp. 32, 34, 42–50
  18. ^ For example: J. ter Gouw, in De volksvermaken (Haarlem, 1871), p. 256, describes an ancient tradition of "Zwarte Klazen" in Amsterdam; A.B. van Meerten, in Reisje door het Koningrijk der Nederlanden en het Groot-Hertogdom Luxemburg, voor kinderen (Amsterdam, 1827), describes a (fictional?) St. Nicholas celebration in which the Saint appears "with a black face ... with a whip and a rod in his hands"; and in De Nederlandsche Kindervriend, in gedichtjes voor de welopgevoede jeugd (Amsterdam, 1829), pp. 72-74, "Sinterklaas" is referred to as "a black man" who was said to descend down the chimney "with a great noise of chains" which he used for fettering naughty children. Respondents to a 1943 survey of the Meertens Instituut wrote that they had known Saint Nicholas "as a bishop or as a black man with a chain on his foot" and "in the shape of a black man. The bishop was unknown in my youth" (J. Helsloot, "Sich verkleiden in der niederländischen Festkultur. Der Fall des 'Zwarte Piet'", Rheinisches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde 26 (2005/2006), pp. 137-153; 141).
  19. ^ Booy, Frits (2003). "Lezing met dia's over 'op zoek naar zwarte piet' (in search of Zwarte Piet)" (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 12 October 2011. Retrieved 29 November 2007.
  20. ^ ""St Nicholas en zijn knecht" by Jan Schenkman". 12 October 2010. Retrieved 26 November 2012.
  21. ^ van Duinkerken, A. (5 December 1931). "Sint Niklaasgoed 1850 (Een surprise van Thijm aan Potgieter)". De Tijd. pp. 21–22.
  22. ^ "Zij echter, die ter sluik op het St. Nicolaas feest hadden rondgewandeld, vonden, te huis komende, de Pietermanknecht te hunnent; de zoons in hunne vaders, de mannen in hunnen vrouwen en de dienstmeisjes in hunne gebiedsters." ("St. Nikolaas", De Arke Noach's, 7, 10 (December 1833), pp. 294-299; p. 296)
  23. ^ Helsloot, J. (November 2011). "De oudst bekende naam van Zwarte Piet: Pieter-mê-knecht (1850)". Digitale nieuwsbrief Meertens Instituut.
  24. ^ Eelco Verwijs, Sinterklaas (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1863), p. 13. The slave is a young Alexandrian named Adeodatus.
  25. ^ See, for instance, the story of the Ethiopian slave "Piter" in Anton van Duinkerken, "De Geschiedenis van Sinterklaas", De Tijd, 21 November 1947, p. 3; "Sint Nicolaas bevrijdde een slaaf. Uit dankbaarheid ging deze vrijwillig de Sint dienen; hij heet Zwarte Piet", De Nieuwsgier, 3 December 1954, p. 3; and also, from a slightly different angle, Puck Volmer, "Hoe Zwarte Piet het knechtje van Sinterklaas werd", De Indische Courant, 29 November 1941, p. 19.
  26. ^ "Geen Sinterklaas meer op Curaçao, maar alternatief kinderfeest". 20 September 2020. Retrieved 15 September 2021.
  27. ^ "Zwarte pieten willen niet meer". NRC. 7 November 2019. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
  28. ^ "Door de ervaringen in Friesland denken voorstanders van Zwarte Piet dat dreigen met geweld loont". Volkskrant. 18 November 2018. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
  29. ^ "Zwarte Pieten in Bijenkorf worden goud". RTL. 10 August 2015. Archived from the original on 12 December 2015. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  30. ^ "Hema Reportedly Phasing Out Zwarte Piet". DutchNews. 26 August 2014. Retrieved 2 September 2014.
  31. ^ "Nickelodeon presenteert ongeschminkte pieten". NRC. 4 November 2015. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  32. ^ "RTL stopt met Zwarte Piet, voortaan alleen pieten met roetvegen". RTL. 24 October 2016. Archived from the original on 2 January 2018. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  33. ^ "Sintcomite Zaanstad trekt zich terug uit intocht". De Telegraaf. 4 October 2018. Retrieved 10 July 2019.
  34. ^ "1 Miljoen Schoenen". YouTube. 4 November 2018. Archived from the original on 17 November 2021. Retrieved 10 July 2019.
  35. ^ "A7-blokkeerders wilden anti-Zwarte Piet-betogers 'alleen vertragen'". AD. 9 October 2018. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
  36. ^ "Amnesty International, MPs call on PM to condemn pro-Piet violence". DutchNews. 19 November 2018. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
  37. ^ "Netherlands Christmas parade to replace blackface make-up with soot". The Irish Times. 18 September 2018. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
  38. ^ "Zwarte Piet protest group accuses police of failing to protect safety". DutchNews. 11 November 2019. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
  39. ^ a b "The Office: NBC and Netflix Remove Blackface Scene from "Dwight Christmas" Episode". Den of Geek. 29 June 2020. Retrieved 29 September 2020.
  40. ^ "Rutte: ik ben anders gaan denken over Zwarte Piet". NOS Nieuws. 5 June 2020. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  41. ^ "Facebook is banning controversial Dutch character 'Zwarte Piet'". The Next Web. 11 August 2020. Retrieved 14 September 2020.
  42. ^ "Google to ban Zwarte Piet's sooty replacement as a 'racial stereotype'". 28 October 2020. Retrieved 28 October 2020.
  43. ^ " doet Zwarte Piet helemaal weg". 18 August 2020. Retrieved 26 August 2021.
  44. ^ "Amazon also bans blackface Zwarte Piet products". 18 August 2020. Retrieved 26 August 2021.
  45. ^ "Bibliotheken verwijderen boeken met Zwarte Piet: 'Smaldeel bepaalt niet ons beleid'". 12 November 2020. Retrieved 26 August 2021.
  46. ^ Blakely, Allison (2001). Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society. Indiana University Press. pp. 48–49. ISBN 9780253214331.
  47. ^ "Cookies op". 18 October 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2015.
  48. ^ Sepinwall, Alan (25 March 2022). "'Atlanta' Kicks Off Season 3 With a Dark and Twisted Doubleheader". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 29 April 2022.
  49. ^ D'Addario, Daniel (20 March 2022). "'Atlanta' Season 3 Is a Startling, Stunning Master Class: TV Review". Variety. Retrieved 29 April 2022.


  • Bas, Marcel (2013). Zwarte Piet: discriminerend of fascinerend?. Aspekt Uitgeverij. ISBN 978-9461534095.