Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and the release of the slaves

I realize this is an American message board and that most of your are probably unaware of the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas. He is the model for Santa Clause as you know him, but instead of coming from the North Pole, Sinterklaas lives in Spain and comes to Holland each year by steamboat, accompanied by his helpers Black Petes. It has been a tradition for more than 500 years.

In the last few years there has been some controversy around this tradition because Black Pete is seen as racist (with him appearing in black face), and a minority would like to see his appearance changed. Although I personally do not fully agree, I understand the sentiment and would not be opposed to changing his black face to green or orange.

Most people in Holland do disagree, though and find it ridiculous to change such an ancient tradition. To win arguments against those that feel the need to change they come up with all sorts of reasons why Black Pete is not racist. It’s one of this reasonings that I have a question about:

According to them, Black Pete was never a slave. He was a slave, but when Saint Nicholas met him on the docks at some point, he was appalled by their treatment, released them, and subsequently employed them in his service. Therefore, Black Pete is the opposite of racism. It’s a lovely story if it were true, but I’ve been searching the Internet and can’t find anything on this supposed occurrence. I think a lot of people want it to be true so that they feel better about dressing up as a Moorish page boy.

So my question to the Board is this: is there any truth to this story? I’m not interested in the sentiments on the tradition itself. I realize this is a delicate subject in the US, and people in black face is a definite no-no on principle alone.

From the English Wikipedia page, it looks like Zwaarte Piet only dates from the 19th century. So there was no earlier tradition of St Nicholas freeing slaves or having a black servant.

That seems conclusive, but I still wonder where the story of Piet being a freed slave comes from, or if it truly is a recent invention. Other sources mention older origins of Zwarte Piet (notably the Dutch Wikipedia page), but none mention this. In particular I’m looking for a source refuting the story. There not being proof of the story existense usually isn’t a good argument for those who insist it is a true story.

Also from that page, the question of “was he a slave?” (meaning, in this case, was the* fictional character as invented by Schenkman/popular imagination* intended to be a slave?) is difficult to pick apart.

  • The original book doesn’t say he’s a slave, only a servant
  • But on the other hand, the popular assumption of a black character shown in a servant position in the nineteenth century MIGHT be that he’s a slave
  • But on the OTHER other hand, that may be more of an American than a Dutch assumption, since there wasn’t much of a tradition of African slavery in Europe itself. And there were North African people about, so would nineteenth century Dutch people have that assumption? Who knows.
  • And on the I don’t-remember-how-many-hands-I’m-up-to, in pre-Medieval Europe slavery was widespread, but not race-based. So if you assume the character has to be a slave because he’s black, that’s anachronistic. OTOH, if you assume he’s a slave because he’s a servant, you may have a point. Unless you want to posit that a guy like St Nicholas wouldn’t have had a slave for any reason.

Confused yet? I sure am.

The origins of Zwarte Piet date back far further than the 19th century and he has changed face several times. (ha hah).

The most recent Piet is a nicified version for the children. Before he was a nice, moorish helper of Saint Nicholas, he was devil from the underworld, which is why he is black.
You can still see this in the Krampus versions, in other countries.

Before the Christians coopted the feast into Saint Nicholas, this was Wodan’s feast.
Wodan, with his hat and spear, rode his horse Sleipnir over the rooftops and visited the people. Those that had been good got presents. The bad were punished.

Wodan is a germanic God. There are strong indications that Zwarte Piet is older than the arrival of the Germans. Wodan’s wife, Frau Holle, used to be a prominent Godess before the germans. She is also known as Perchta (or variations thereof) who is still celebrated in several countries, mostly slavic.
She fullfills the same role as Saint Nicholas in these feasts, bringing presents to those that have been good. Punishment of the bad is carried out by her companion from the underworld, who has a black face.

So Zwarte Piet is not 500 years old but some 5000(!!!)

I seem to recall a version of the story where St.Nicolaas freed a group of kids from slavery.
I can easily see how those later morphed into ‘Zwarte Piet’

If you go to the Dutch wiki page for Zwarte Piet there is a bunch of stuff about how there wasn’t one before the 1800’s and how his origin might be based on several myths of a boeman (boogeyman) where a demon or a man in black took those kids that were bad. (See also the post above)

So…I think we’ll never get the real origin, simply because there is no one origin as it’s a tale that just grew and got more traditions attached to it. And to make it even more complicated it seems that the way it’s celebrated is different in each region. Even within a small place like the Netherlands!

As far as the racism argument. I understand both sides.
But if only people on both sides wouldn’t scream bloody murder about every detail they could actually come up with some fun solutions that kids won’t even care about (because to them it’s all about fun and gifts)

It’s very difficult to prove a negative.

It’s not really necessary for you to prove that the story is false, it’s up to the people who claim it’s true to provide evidence that it’s true.

I can tell you haven’t met these people. For them ‘but everybody knows that…’ is more than enough proof.

I guess you’re right, but I had some hopes that the combined mental force of the Dope had something more definite :slight_smile:

I had never heard that he was supposed to be a freed slave, before the racism discussion.
It had always just been that he was his servant.
Servants come in all colours, nothing racist about being a servant. In Europe 99.99% of servants were white.

So, this argument might indeed be new and fashioned exactly for the current discussion.

Saint Peter Claver, Patron Saint of Slaves.

I was surprised that Catholics are by far the largest Christian denomination in the Netherlands.