Christmas traditions in the world are the most varied. Santa Claus is also known in many forms and with different names. Moving the research on the most curious customs comes out another character, certainly not famous as elves and reindeer but equally worthy of charm. In some European countries to accompany St Nicholas of Bari there is a clumsy-looking helper known as Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”). Who is this person from far origins, but who follows St Nicholas in distributing gifts to children?
Zwarte Piet is part of the folkore of Belgium and Holland, but similar characters are also found in other European countries. He has a dark skin and dresses elegant clothes, however he is often interpreted as an awkward and funny servant, intent on giving sweets to children. The first official appearance of the character dates back to a children’s book published in the middle of the 19th century entitled “St Nicholas and his servant”. A title that will unfortunately become a source of controversy. Piet in tradition appears in the night between 5 and 6 December.
The origins of Piet are really interesting: the character would be born in the popular culture during the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands. An event that led the occupied population to see both in the serfs following the Spanish soldiers and in the latter the representation of the Devil. Still today the St Nicholas' helper threatens the bad children to drag them to Spain, his country of origin. According to some historians the origins of Piet go back to northern mythology: it is a transposition of the black raven Odin’s companion. Thanks to the 17th century Dutch colonial expansionism, the servant will also be known in colonies far away from the homeland.
In recent years poor Zwarte Piet has also been at the centre of some controversies related to an alleged racist factor. The fact that Piet is nothing more than a black servant almost always interpreted by whites who paint their faces and twist their movements has been seen as a negative stereotype to propose, especially to children. It was not enough to pass the idea that the color of Piet’s skin is actually due to his getting up and down the chimneys to bring sweets. There have even been clashes between demonstrators and police in the Netherlands.