Dutch Language Blog

Sinterklaas III Posted by on Dec 13, 2008 in Dutch Language

Ok, only two more topics about Sinterklaas… the last one (next time) will be about Sinterklaas vs Santa Claus…

Last time I told you about the adventures of the Zwarte Pieten in the Dutch tv-show: ‘De Club van Sinterklaas’.

Today I’d like to delve a bit deeper in the controversial history of the Zwarte Pieten.

Their history is controversial because even historical researchers can’t seem to agree about their origin. Many different stories about them go around.

Their familiar looks as we know them today, are of black Moorish helpers, in colourful outfits (a tunic, pants, cape and a hat with a feather) with bags filled with candy and presents and of course ‘de roe’ (that whisk-like twig instrument). They creep atop the rooftops to climb through chimneys to leave presents and candy for nice children in their shoes.

It seems that originally there was only one Zwarte Piet.

Some say he was a demon, forced by the kind-hearted saint to do good deeds, others say he was a pre-christian deity who had to submit to the christian saint.

Then others say Zwarte Piet derived from a Moorish page with the name Piter (from Petrus), a little boy bought and set free by Saint Nicholas and the Piter in return devoted his life to him.

While I was once taught that traditions of Sinterklaas and traditions from pagan religions at sometime merged and the seven Zwarte Pieten were derived from the seven crows of Wodan (or Odin). In other words, Sinterklaas is just plain Wodan riding the sky with his horse Sleipnir accompanied by his loyal crow servants.

With the arrival of Catholics, other religions and deities were pushed to the background (like Wodan/Odin). But the beliefs of the Germanic tribes were deeply rooted, so they didn’t completely forget the celebration of Wodan, they just mixed their own traditions with the celebration of Saint Nicholas’ death day.

So pagan traditions and legends about Saint Nicholas started to merge.

The tossing of the candy (pepernoten) came from the legend of the golden coins and the three sisters (they were to poor to have a dowry, no man would have them, until one day a mysterious hand appeared through the window to toss in several gold coins) but it was also a fertility ritual like rice at weddings.

The arrival of Sinterklaas on steam boat, derived from the principal that Saint Nicholas was the protector of sea men.

The skin colour of Zwarte Piet has brought up many racial issues. Some people think ‘Zwarte Piet’ is a racist tradition and want to eliminate them from the celebration. But, since there is yet another story of origin, this time of Zwarte Piet being an Italian chimney sweeper, other people say that Zwarte Piet is merely black because of his chimney sweeping and climbing duties. The current Zwarte Piet is probably a mix of all these different characters and origins.

Right after the second World War, Canadian soldiers helped to organize the first after war celebration of Sinterklaas. They weren’t hindered with knowledge of tradition, so they thought if just one Zwarte Piet was fun, a lot more Zwarte Pieten would be even more fun!

So, from that day, Sinterklaas has a lot of Zwarte Pieten, each one with their own designated duty.

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