Monday, December 13, 2010

Santa's Black Elf

Santa Claus' "Black" servant, the fore-runner to Santa's Elves.

In the folklore and legends of the Netherlands and Belgium, Zwarte Piet (meaning Black Pete) is a companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas) whose yearly feast in the Netherlands is usually celebrated on the evening of the 5th of December (Sinterklaas-avond, that is St. Nicolas Eve) and the 6th of December in Belgium, when they distribute sweets and presents to all good children.

The characters of Zwarte Pieten appear only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas's feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by boat, having traveled from Spain). The tasks of the Zwarte Pieten are mostly to amuse children, and to scatter pepernoten and candies for those who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools, and other places.

1845: Jan Schenkman writes Saint Nicholas and his Servant; Piet is described in this book as a servant and as black, and is depicted as a dark man wearing Asian-style clothes. Steamboat travel becomes part of the mythos from this point. In the 1850 version of Schenkman's book, they are depicted looking much as they do today. The servant gets his African origin but still has no standard name. In later editions Piet was shown in the page costume, the book stayed (with some changes) in print until 1950 and can be seen as the foundation of the current celebration, even though it did use a lot of older ideas and customs.

1891: in the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas the servant is named Pieter, until 1920 there were several books giving him other names, and in live appearances the name and looks still varied considerably.

In the early 20th century the Civilized Standard Celebration for children, with Zwarte Piet as the standard personal servant of the saint, spread throughout the country. In the 1930s urban adults become more involved too and the arrival of Saint Nicholas and his Zwarte Pieten are staged, which more or less explains the shift from the 6th to the 5th of December, as the adults would celebrate on the eve of the saint's day.

During the 20th century, the number of Sinterklaas' servants multiplied. This paradigm shift opened possibilities to create (for TV and such) lots of different characters being a "Zwarte Piet" at the same time. For example, there's a "Hoofd Piet" (Head Piet) who carries the book of Sinterklaas, "Rijm Piet" (Rhyme Piet), et cetera. Especially during the televised yearly event, when Sinterklaas arrives by boat he is often assisted by dozens of Piets. In america he is called Black Peter.
The Dutch now celebrate Sinterklaas (5 December) with an exchange of gifts. These presents are given anonymously, but are often accompanied by poems (Sinterklaasgedicht), signed by "Zwarte Piet" or "Sint", which are read aloud during Sinterklaas evening for the enjoyment of the ones assembled. The poems often are teasing in nature.

Origin and evolution
According to myths dating to the beginning of the 19th century, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) operated by himself or in the companionship of a devil. Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas Eve, the devil was shackled and made his slave. A devil as a helper of the Saint can also still be found in Austrian Saint Nicholas tradition in the character of Krampus.

Some sources indicate that in Germanic Europe, Zwarte Piet originally was such an enslaved devil forced to assist his captor, but the character emerged in the 19th century within the Netherlands as a companion of Saint Nicholas resembling a Moor.[1] Saint Nicholas is said to come from Turkey. The relation of Zwarte Piet with Haji Firuz is incredibly close, Haji Firuz is a traditional herald of Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration, exactly black in the face and comes with Amoo Nowruz a white beared old man who brings gifts for the children counter part of Western Santa.

The introduction of this new Zwarte Piet was paired with a change in the attitude of the Sinterklaas character that was often shown as being quite rough against bad children himself and thought unbefitting of a Bishop by teachers and priests. Soon after the introduction of Zwarte Piet as Sinterklaas' helper, both characters adapted to a softer character.[2]

Until the second half of the 20th century, Saint Nicholas' helper was not too bright, in line with the old colonial traditions. Once immigration started from the former colonised countries Zwarte Piet became a much more respected assistant of Saint Nicholas, who is often a bit inattentive.[3]

According to the more modern Saint Nicholas legend, a Zwarte Piet is a servant who accompanies Saint Nicholas on his holiday travels. In some versions, it is alleged that Saint Nicholas once liberated a young slave named Peter, who decided to serve Nicholas (as a free servant) rather than enjoy liberty alone. Zwarte Piet is today commonly depicted as a black person in the colorful pantaloons, feathered cap and ruffles of a Renaissance European page, a tradition based on a single illustration in a book published in 1850.

Zwarte Pieten are often portrayed as mischievous but rarely a mean-spirited characters. Parents used to tell their children that if they have been good, a Zwarte Piet will bring them gifts and sweets, but if they have been bad, a Piet will scoop them up, stuff them in his huge dufflebag and spirit them away to Spain as punishment. Though this is increasingly uncommon nowadays, he can still carry some type or scourge (called a "roe"), especially a a bundle of birch branches, which could be used for birching or in modern words, to chastise children who have been too naughty to deserve presents. The character is believed to have been derived from pagan traditions of evil spirits. Also told for decades is a story that the Zwarte Pieten are black because of chimney soot and/or in mockery of the darker Spanish occupiers of the Low Countries in centuries past.

The traditions of the Saint Nicholas feast are in part at least of medieval origin, if not much older. St. Nicholas himself, as described in the Dutch tradition shows some similarities to Wuotan/Odin, which suggests that the duo have a pre-Christian origin. Possible precursors to Zwarte Piet can be found in Odin's ravens Hugin and Munin.

Zwarte Piet During recent years the role of Zwarte Pieten has become part of a recurring debate in the Netherlands. Present-day observations in the Netherlands under controversy include holiday revellers blackening their faces, wearing afro wigs, gold jewellery and bright red lipstick, speaking in a Surinamese accent,[4] and walking the streets throwing candy to passers-by.

The lyrics of traditional Sinterklaas songs and some parents warn that while Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten will leave well-behaved children presents, they will punish those who have been naughty. For example they will take bad children and carry these children off in a burlap sack to their homeland of Spain, where, according to legend, Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten dwell out of season. A child who has been only slightly naughty will not get a present, but a birching with a "roe", which is a bundle of birch twigs. However, due to the long ago banishment of physical punishments like birching, the legend of birching has been replaced with simply receiving a lump of coal instead of gift.

Foreign tourists, particularly Americans, often experience culture shock upon encountering the character (to dress in blackface is a gross taboo in America). Since the last decade of the 20th century there have been several attempts to introduce a new kind of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch population, where the Zwarte Pieten replaced their traditional black make-up with all sorts of colours.[5] In 2006 the NPS (en: Dutch Programme Foundation) as an experiment replaced the black Pieten by rainbow-coloured Pieten, but in 2007 reverted to the traditional all-black Pieten.[6]

Subscribe! .

No comments: