To some, Black Peter was simply a brutal Moorish servant that St Nicholas had acquired. To others he was Satan himself, who had been captured and subjugated by St Nicholas and compelled to do his bidding. What was certain was that he was both vicious and single-minded in his determination to punish misbehaving children. A beating from Black Peter was said to be far more severe and brutal than any discipline the child had ever received before. If a child sufficiently angered St Nicholas for him to demand that Black Peter take the child away in his sack then the child would be trapped in Hell for an entire year, only getting the chance to repent the following Christmas.
Early depictions of Black Peter saw performers portray him by blacking their hands and faces with soot. This is certainly politically incorrect and a bit tasteless by modern standards. However – if you accept the idea of Black Peter being the Devil rather than a Moorish servant – the similarities to the image of someone ‘blacking up’ could be dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. In the Middle Ages there was no universally accepted idea of what the Devil looked like but he was often depicted as being black in colour, perhaps because he was perceived as an evil figure strongly associated with shadows and darkness.
The nineteenth century saw a change in how Black Peter was portrayed. This was the time when Christmas experienced a major renaissance during which many medieval traditions were reinvented with a modern twist. It was also the height of colonialism and centuries of slaving trading had ensured non-white people were seen as inferior to Europeans, perhaps even less than human, and certainly ripe for mocking and satire. The person playing Black Peter began to take things a bit further and created the image hat largely remains to this day. Not only would the performer blacken all visible skin but he also donned pink lipstick and an Afro wig and wore garish jewellery. His behaviour and demeanour was fierce and primal and he was presented as a violent ‘untamed savage’, bound up with chains and clearly subservient to St Nicholas, his dominant ‘master’.
Critics of the character argue that such an overtly racial image is a throwback to the days of slavery and colonialism. They believe the clear stereotyping in Black Peter’s appearance can only be a symbol of racism that both offends and excludes the black population that makes up a sizable part of the country today.
Many modern-day Dutch people are keen to preserve the tradition of Zwarte Piet and insist that they are preserving existing traditions rather than attempting to cause racial offence, explaining that the character is black because he is covered in soot from climbing up and down chimneys. However, it is very difficult to disassociate his appearance from similar racial caricatures such as minstrels and golliwogs and it is extremely difficult to believe prejudice played no part in how his image was created in the nineteenth century.
In 2011 the former Dutch colony of Suriname banned depictions of Zwarte Piet in public and the same year Amsterdam city councillor Andrée Van Es became the first high-profile politician to publicly denounce the character. Attempts have also been made to portray Peter in different-coloured make-up such as blue, green and yellow. Nonetheless, the traditions have proved hard to shake off. Van Es was heavily criticised by Dutch traditionalists and an experiment by Dutch public broadcasters NPS to portray a rainbow-coloured Peter lasted only a year before he reverted back to his blackface origins. Meanwhile, the Dutch community in Vancouver were so vexed by the controversy over their use of Zwarte Piet in their annual Christmas celebrations in 2011 that local authorities decided to cancel them entirely, rather than make the decision to phase out the character. For now, however, Peter still appears in his blackface guise to play a major part in Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands itself.
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is published by Simon & Schuster and available now. The illustration is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.