Who is Black Peter?
Q: Who is Black Peter and what does he have to do with Christmas?
-- Vera Falk, Warren, Ohio
A: Every Black person in the Netherlands hears being shouted at least once a
year; "Look, black Peter!!!!". The fact that it is often a child mistaking me
for "black Peter", a Sambo/Golliwog-figure that's part of a Dutch 'holiday',
does not make it less painfull.
On the fifth of December two very persistent myths join hands in the
Netherlands. One is the myth about "Saint Nicholas", the other is the myth on
the existence of race, and its manifestation; racism.
Nicholas was a bishop who lived in (what we now call) 'Turkey'. After
he died the Byzantium church declared him a Saint. The legendary bishop is remembered during an annual
holiday that is widely celebrated in the Low Lands; in offices, schools and homes. The idea is to give each other
presents and to write poems filled with irony and humour, offering you the
chance to poke fun at each other. Children are taught to believe that they
receive their presents from Saint Nicholas who is accompanied by a black
servant called 'Black Peter'. Adults will dress up as Saint Nicholas and Black
Peter (a white person painted in black face), and visit children and adults.
Saint Nicholas "arrives" from Spain in November by boat in Holland together
with his black servants. This ritual is shown on national television and opens
the festivities. From that time on the stores are filled with candy, books,
decorations and toys covered with representations of coal black skin and ruby
red lips and an old white male with a funny hat. Children sing songs at school
referring to the skintone and character of Black Servant "...even if I'm
black as coal I mean well...' and play 'Black Peter' by painting their face
Before I'll problematize this controversial black figure I will discuss his
white master, Saint Nicholas.
There are several books written about 'Saint Nicholas' that give
different explanations about his origin. Some ascribe to him an origin that is
strictly Christian while others write about a mythological origin that goes
back to Wodan, German God of wind and fertility. Writer Rahina Hassankhan
(1988) states that the Saint Nicholas-legend we are familiar with now is
probably based on stories about two figures that both lived in the province of
Lyke. The youngest bishop named Nicholas lived in the 6th century and became
known for his ability to cure people from bad spirits and illnesses. He died
in December 564. The older bishop who was also called Nicholas was born in the
3rd century near a city called Myra. He died on the sixth of December.
Many legends were being told in which Nicholas is the patron of
children, sailors, merchants and female virgins so the Byzantium church
declared him a Saint. One such a story is the tale of a poor nobleman who is
unable to offer a dowry for his daughters, so they may marry. He decides that
his daughters will have to prostitute themselves in order to survive. Saint
Nicholas prevents this from happening by throwing bags filled with money
through the poor nobleman's window at night. Each bag contains enough for the
dowry of a daughter and makes it possible for them to marry. Many of the
legends take place in the so-called 'Land of the Mores' as Byzantium was at
war with the Arabs during the 9th century (Meisen, 1933).
In the 10th and 11th century Saint Nicholas became known for his
legendary miracles in what we now refer to as 'Western - Europe' (one can
still find a lot of churches that carry his name). His remains were stolen
from Myra, the city he died, and transferred to Bari, South Italy, in 1087.
Christians who thought it wasn't right that his remains were on Islamic ground
did this. As a consequence of this transfer, which was experienced as a
triumph, Bari became a destination for pilgrims. The Roman Catholic Church
began to celebrate December 5th, the day Nicholas has thought to have died. In
the convent-schools, children would perform the stories of the legends. One
child would be chosen to play "Saint Nicholas", while the other children would
blacken their faces and play the devil. These stories were performed
throughout the month until the 28th of December.
From the beginning of the twelfth century on, it was publicly celebrated in
the streets. But the Protestant reformation brought an end to this. The
celebration was forbidden because it was perceived as idolatry. From that time
Saint Nicholas was no longer an official Saint. In spite of this the
celebration continued to exist in the Netherlands in the private sphere of
people’s homes and after the French revolution the holiday re-enters public
life (Nederveen Pieterse, 1995, 1998).
As stated earlier the black slave-characters that accompanied Saint
Nicholas originally symbolised the devil, a 'joker' who was submissive,
frightening and disobedient at once. At this point there were no 'racial'
references to people of African descent. Although the Mores were also
associated with the devil, the blackness of the children did not refer to them
but to the devil-figure. In other words; this color bias preceded the
racial-bias. When Saint Nicholas re-appeared at the end of the 18th century
after being banned, he returned alone, without Black Peter.
In the 19th century the black devil returns, this time re-invented as
a servant of Moorish descent. He wears the costume of the child-slaves that
work in Europe at that time, the pages. Carrying a large bag and his rod he
threatens to take children that behaved bad. In an era of slavery and
colonialism the racial ideas of that time were translated onto this figure.
The combination of the small Black Peter and horse-riding Saint Nicholas,
represents the triumph of good over bad, Christian over heathen, and later;
Christianity over Islam. They're caught in a relationship of dualism. Val
Plumwood describes dualism as: '(...) dualism (...) results from a certain
kind of dependency on a subordinated other. This relationship of denied
dependency determines a kind of logical structure, in which the denial and the
relation of domination/subordination shape the identity of both the relata.'
(Plumwood in Gravenberch, 1998). Gravenberch points out in his article on
this dualist relationship that: 'the contrast between the Saint Nicholas and
Black Peter stands in a long tradition of dichotomised representation in which
Europeans portrayed themselves and Africans as essentially different:
Europeans as rational responsible, civilised, mature and as masters. Africans
as irrational, wild, childish and as slave'. Saint Nicholas is being portrayed
as everything Black Peter is not. The Saint is an old white, wise, and
articulated man. Peter is a young, black, simple, cheeky (classically followed
by a reprimand from the Saint), boy.
In the 21st century the black figure is still with us, dressed in the
same outfit. The role is usually played by a white woman or man who wears
black or brown grease paint on their faces (Saint Nicholas is always performed
by a man). He or she wears large golden earrings, a curly wig and red
lipstick. Right now they wear brown grease paint more often because "the
blackness frightens children".
Once the transformation is completed, a change in voice and behaviour usually
follow. He or she will speak improper Dutch with a low voice and a Surinamese
accent. In other words; a racial stereotype is reinforced. While the
stereotype and its origin, are obvious, many people (also respectable
scholars) contend that the figure has either no racial connotations, or the
racial connotations should be viewed as being positive.
A very popular explanation about his color is that the blackness
stems from the figure's passage down the chimney. In the story Black Peter
comes down the chimney to deliver presents and according to this explanation
he's black because of the soot. Other explanations use the figure's origin to
While writer and historian Louis Janssen attacks the belief that Black Peter
symbolises racist beliefs, he does not come up with any counterarguments as to
why the figure is not racist. He states that the critics do not take the
historical dimensions into account. Janssen therefore looks to Karl Meisen
for historical background about the origin of Black Peter. He says that Black
Peter symbolises the devil who was easily associated with people of Moorish
decent. The current Black Peter is simply a variant of this devil-figure,
according to Janssen. This theoretical explanation about Black Peters 'roots'
is not an argument against but for the critics of the figure. The fact that
the current Black Peter is a racialised variant of the devil figure and people
(esp. children) are still being taught, through the celebrations and rituals,
to "easily associate" evilness and Black Peter with people of color, is
exactly the problem here.
Janssen's 'historical perspective' does not address Black Peter and the
historical context that made such associations and images possible. The
heritage of the French revolution (freedom, equality and fraternity) did not
exactly characterise the relationship between whites and Africans. The
oppression of Africans was legitimised by an ideology, a discourse translated
in 'scientific' and religious theories about blacks that 'proved' they were
inferior, destined to work as slaves. Unfortunately Janssen is so busy proving
the critics that the 'original' Black Peter is not a product of 19th century
colonial thought, that he uses historical facts selectively and focuses on
devil-versions of Black Peter one does not see anymore. Contemporary Black
Peter is a caricature of a black person.
This denial of the racist component is present in most works on Saint
Nicholas. Writers on Saint Nicholas often fall back on 'historical
explanations' without analysing the claims that are being made about 'race'
through the representation of the black servant and white saint, and the
historical context that led to such images.
Writer Tonny van Renterghem states in the book When Santa was a Shaman
(1995) that the image of Black Peter leads to confusing accusations of racism.
Van Renterghem claims that the solution to this confusion is simple; we should
return to the old image of Black Peter, which is not a caricature of a
'Negro'. He bypasses the content of the criticism by pointing to a vague
notion of the figure's authenticity. He recognises the racial features of the
modern Black Peter while claiming it's all a matter of mistake: If we could
only see Black Peter's "real" identity and return back to this. In the mean
time we are stucked with the realness of the caricature. Notions about an
authentic identity of Black Peter does not lead us out of the power relations
that make racist images possible. When we deconstruct the myth of Saint
Nicholas and Black Peter we discover the conviction that blacks are inferior,
a conviction that does not stand on its own but as we all know is still
translated as truth in certain academia, popular media and politics. By
including race thinking in the ritual it becomes part of the attributes of a
power structure. In it's recent form it shows us how power relations can be
read in Dutch multicultural society. This is not only evident through the
ritual itself but especially through the public debate about the imagery of
the white master and his black servant.
The first voices that protested against Black Peter came from the
former Dutch colony Surinam where the holiday was also a national celebration.
When Surinam received its status of independence in 1975, the black slave was
abolished. A new movement came into existence that searched for new positive
images of black people. Representations of blacks as docile and submissive
were no longer accepted. "Saint Nicholas" was changed into a black figure
called "Good Father" and accompanied by black "employees". This change may
seem minor but also in Surinam the myth of the white saint and his black slave
was difficult to contest or criticise. For example, in 1970 writer Astrid
Roemer was a High School teacher who refused to celebrate the holiday at
school. She talked to her colleques and the principle of the school, but they
refused to listen to her arguments. The day of the celebration she did not
appear at the school. She was fired the next day.
In the seventies a lot of Surinamese people migrated to the
Netherlands due to the political circumstances in their home country. Their
presence led to a re-evaluation of the ways the Dutch dealt with their
colonial history and their images of black people. Again Black Peter was
scrutinised, only this time in a context where the majority of society was
white. Blacks had already experienced the insult of hearing "Black Peter!"
shouted at them on the streets in Paramaribo (as they were associated with the
figure), but the person shouting was often black himself. In the Netherlands
they entered a society that hardly knew anything about them; the only images
white people were familiar with were stereotypes like 'Black Peter'. In
response to the insult of the stereotype some Surinamese people refused to
send their children to school when "Saint Nicholas" was celebrated, others
urged for alternatives like a red or blue "Peter" in stead of a black one. For
a while the yellow, blue, red painted versions of "Black Peter" were
successful but as the protest-voices declined the Black version of Peter
dominated the eighties.
In the Netherlands 17 percent of its citizens are people of 'color'
right now. Most people are from former colonies like Indonesia and Surinam but
a lot of people have their roots in Morocco and Turkey. They were drafted to
do factory-work in Holland during the seventies with the idea that they would
return home after a few years. But history decided otherwise; their wives and
children joined them later and together they started a new future. This 17
percent of citizens are called "Allochtonen", a combination of two Greek words
that literally means; "from another world, earth". This definition of
citizenship is problematic in itself because it denies everyone who isn't
white, Dutch membership. The 'allochtoon' is the Other; the ones who are
usually discussed as a problem population by the media, in the political
sphere and academia; all of which are pre-dominantly white and male. The
'allochtonen' are located in the so-called 'multicultural' society that exists
in juxtaposition to the 'Dutch society', the domain of 'Dutch' people also
called 'Autochtones' which means "from this earth".
The dualist relationship in which the two groups are locked in
characterises the way Dutch society deals with the identities of her citizens.
One can be Dutch by passport but that doesn't mean one can automatically claim
the national identity of 'Dutchman'. For this identity the main condition is
that one simply is White or looks White. Although whiteness determines whether
one can claim the national identity, the effects of this ethnic factor are not
being acknowledged. The ethnic factor and its power effects become invisible
as it's turned into an neutral universal category (that sets the norm) by
particularising the identity of the Other; the migrant, her children ànd
grandchildren. The identities of non-whites versus "Dutch" people are defined
in terms of difference, dichotomies: the Allochtoon becomes everything the
white Dutch person, the Autochtoon, is not.
This is problematic when it comes to having an active role in the way
the nation-state should be organised. Although we are officially all equal,
membership counts when it comes to public deliberation. The second rate
citizenship of the 'Other' was also used as a strategy in the debate on Black
While there were always people, black and white, who individually protested
against the celebration, the protest got organized in 1995 by a group of second
and third generation migrants. Contrary to their parents or grandparents they
are born in the Netherlands, not limited by the idea that they are "guests",
having to conform to the symbols of a "host" which they find insulting. They
are part of a generation of people that demands a place in Dutch society much
more forcefully. Because of their input the discussion became a national one
in 1996 in the sense that it was being discussed on television, in newspapers
The critics of Black Pete were repeatedly confronted with the argument
that 'they' did not have the right to critique 'Dutch tradition' because they
weren't 'Dutch'. The discussion was being polarised as if the different
opinions were divided along 'racial' lines. The argument is as follows: as an
'allochtoon', a 'migrant', one has to accept the Dutch 'traditions'. Just as a
'Dutch' person would have to accept local traditions when they lived in
'another' country. The logic here is that it's not their country and culture
that the youngsters are criticizing.
By ascribing second-rate citizenship to the critics who aren't
considered "Dutch", the authority of the speaker is undermined. On the other
hand when it appears that the critic is white, he or she is often being
marginalized as being "political correct", which is used as a contemptuous
term. The letters in the newspapers and on the internet were in general very
emotional, reflecting a fear that 'Dutch' culture is being 'threatened' by
'foreigners' The main arguments were:
- The holiday is a celebration for children and children aren't racist.
- It's a matter of 'tradition' (that certainly can't be changed by 'Foreigners').
- The critics are the ones who make it racist.
The refusal to listen to counter-arguments and reply those with
substantial criticism (in stead of ridiculing or marginalizing them) reflects
an insensibility for the opinion of a minority. The portrayed image of the
Netherlands as being "the most tolerant nation in the world" makes a critical
self-reflection also very difficult: every accusation of racism is beforehand
answered with denial.
One could say that the real problem in the Netherlands is not Black Peter,
but for example the fact that the unemploymancy rate among colored people is
ten times higher than whites. Of course the real problem is not Black Peter in
itself. The debate about Black Peter and the white Saint however, is a
discussion about citizenship, identity, and racism. And because this
discussion does not take place behind closed doors between politicians and
intellectuals only, but in schools, between colleques, family-members and
friends, it offers us a chance to challenge old conceptions of self and other
at many different levels. However, this annual debate is not sufficient to
change things, but it can lead to more activism, a critical outlook and
recognition of those situations where the same strategies of marginalization
are being used. The Black servant and his White master can not be isolated
from the social context, Dutch society, in which they exist.
Answer/Article by Lulu Njemileh Helder ©
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