The Invisible Web

Your Trip Into the Chapel Perilous

YuleTide: Santa Klaus and His Companions #1 – BLACK PETE(s)

Posted by invizweb on December 20, 2008

For the next 6 days the Invisible Web will unveil the cast of characters, some of which are very abstract, who play different roles on Christmas (companions for the Jolly Old Saint and then Klaus himself, flanked by his Knight), and then 13 more for Winter holiday celebrations of varying cultures worldwide. Together they tell a story like no other. Today’s player…

Centuries ago in the Germanic lands, Sinterklaus (Santa Klaus) was a originally a bishop based in Turkey who traveled the world delivering goods to well-behaved children on Christmas day.  He was originally accompanied either by a Devil he conquered and chained to his side or the character from tomorrow’s story Krampus.  However, in the 19th Century, Saint Nicholas’ story was retconned in Holland and the region of Flanders so that he saved a Moorish “slave” from Spanish servitude and thus in gratitude he is under the bishop’s employ as “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete).  There has been theories throughout history that Santa Klaus is actually a new incarnation of Odin –  if this was so then Pete is actually one of his ravens, either Hugin or Munin, whom are the constant companions of the one-eyed Highfather of the Aesir House of Norse Gods.

(C) Detroit Metro Times

(C) Detroit Metro Times

Pete’s function was to help the Saint distribute candy and goods to amiable children (Santa Klaus is not as healthy anymore due to his old age supposedly; he is actually rather gaunt in his Germanic incarnations) .  However, little hooligans were warned that misbehavior may earn them a lashing from a birch switch or a kidnapping to Spain via Santa and Pete’s mystic burlap sack.  Nowadays, he just feigns to kick kids (I wonder if IWA MidSouth wrestler Chuck Taylor will disguise as Pete or Krampus just to have an excuse to beat up kids).

(C) St Nicholas Center Collection
(C) St Nicholas Center Collection

During the end of World War II, the tradition of “6 to 8” Black Petes accompanying Santa began, as the Dutch organizers who planned the Christmas celebration of the servicemen who liberated them  believed that there should be one unique Santa Klaus.  Controversy ensues today over the 6 to 8 minions of Santa as Black Pete masqueraders are usually blackfaced and wear tall afro wigs.  At times these presenters paint their lips red and behave in a rowdy manner that may offend Black- and African-Dutch (though apparently  he was originally a mockery of Arabic and Spanish immigrants to Southern Netherlands).  Attempts have been made to turn this character(s)  image; some explain that his black skin coloring is due to soot and not his natural pigmentation while a number of Dutch municipalities have introduced rainbow skinned Petes (to the chagrin of some).  Stephen Colbert, in fact, stated that the iconography of Black Pete accompanying Santa Klaus is his “preferred means” of celebrating Christmas, when promoting his Chirstmas special.

Below is a presentation by famed writer David Sedaris on Black Pete.  Here is the text accompaniment.

More on Black Pete here.

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