Published: 21-02-2010, 18:21

Black Peter

Children in the Netherlands receive presents on ST. NICHOLAS’S DAY, December 6. According to old Dutch folk beliefs, each year ST. NICHOLAS and his helper, Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, sail from SPAIN to Holland in a ship loaded with presents for good children. Nowadays, Black Peter not only carries St. Nicholas’s sack of presents, but also brandishes a birch rod which he uses to discipline undeserving children. Truly troublesome youngsters face sterner punishment. Black Peter tosses them into his sack and carries them back to Spain with him (see also CERT).

During the Middle Ages “Black Peter” was a common nickname for the Devil. One tale of those times proclaimed that each year on his birthday, St. Nicholas kidnapped the Devil and made the evildoer assist him in his good works. On St. Nicholas’s Eve the good saint and his reluctant helper flew from house to house dropping presents down the chimney. Somehow these GIFTS landed in the SHOES that the children placed by the fire before going to bed.
Black Peter traditionally appears as a dark-skinned man dressed in the costume of a sixteenth-century Spaniard. Perhaps this image of Black Peter developed during the sixteenth century, when the Dutch suffered under Spanish rule. The Dutch may have associated Spain with dark-skinned people since a north African ethnic group known as the Moors ruled parts of Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. An alternative explanation for Peter’s darkened skin links it to his duties as St. Nicholas’s assistant. Some speculate that Black Peter may have acquired a permanent coating of ashes and soot from scrambling down so many chimneys. Still, the most likely explanation for Peter’s dark skin comes from old folk beliefs. Medieval Europeans often imagined the devil as black-skinned.

Contemporary Customs
Each year the arrival of St. Nicholas and Black Peter is reenacted in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. A great crowd gathers to witness the arrival of the ship bearing the saint and his helper. A white horse, St. Nicholas’s traditional mode of transport, stands ready to serve the saint. The music of a brass band adds to the festive atmosphere. As the gift bringers descend from the ship, the crowd easily identifies Nicholas by his red bishop’s robe and hat and the white beard that flows from his face to his chest. In addition to his embroidered jacket, puffed, knee-length pants, and feathered cap, Black Peter carries a bulging sack of presents, some birch rods, and a large red book in which he has recorded the good and bad deeds of Holland’s children. After greetings have been exchanged with the mayor, the saint and his helper lead a parade to Amsterdam’s central plaza. There the royal family officially welcomes Holland’s CHRISTMAS SEASON gift bringers.
On St. Nicholas’s Eve children may receive home visits from St. Nicholas and Black Peter, usually played by family members or friends. The pair’s detailed knowledge of the children’s good and bad deeds during the past year often astonishes the younger chil-dren. In recent years the increasing popularity of exchanging pre-sents on Christmas Day has somewhat reduced the importance of St. Nicholas and Black Peter in Holland’s Christmas celebrations.