Zwarte Piet

Real Name


First Appearance


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Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a companion of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of the Low Countries, whose yearly feast in the Netherlands is usually celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaasavond, that is, St. Nicholas' Eve) and 6 December in Belgium, when they distribute sweets and presents to all good children.

The character of Zwarte Piet appears only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas's feast, first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (generally by boat, having traveled from Madrid, Spain). The task of Zwarte Piet is mostly to amuse children, and to scatter pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed (special sinterklaas candies) for those who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools, and other places.

The original Zwarte Piet is sometimes associated with Knecht Ruprecht but, in the Low Countries, the tradition has not merged with Christmas.

Branding and Appearance

In Belgium and the Netherlands, children are told that Zwarte Piet leaves gifts in the children’s shoes. Presents are said to be distributed by Saint Nicholas' aide Zwarte Piet; who enters the house through the chimney, which also explains his black face and hands, but not his colorful attire. Blackfaced, red-lipped Zwarte Piet dolls are displayed in store windows alongside with brightly packaged holiday merchandise.

Public Domain Appearances

  • Saint Nicholas and his Servant (1845)
  • Het Feest van Sinterklaas (1891)


The role of Zwarte Piet has become part of a recurring debate in the Netherlands. Controversial practices include holiday revellers blackening their faces and wearing afro wigs, gold jewelry and bright red lipstick, and walking the streets throwing candy to passers-by.

Foreign tourists, particularly those from the United States and the United Kingdom, often experience culture shock when encountering the character, as dressing in blackface is a social taboo in these and other countries. Since the 1990s, there have been several attempts to introduce a new kind of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch public, among them replacing traditional black makeup with various other shades of colours. As an experiment in 2006, the NPS (en: Dutch Programme Foundation) replaced the black Piet with rainbow-colored Piet but, reverted the characters back to the traditional all-black makeup a year later.

The tradition continues to be popular in the Netherlands but some activists have protested against it. Four people wearing T-shirts with the words "Zwarte Piet is Racist" were arrested during the second weekend of November, 2011.

The largest Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada, slated for December 3, 2011, in New Westminster, British Columbia, was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1985 following a debate over the inclusion of Zwarte Piet. Rather than remove the character, the organizers cancelled the festivities entirely because, as spokesperson Tako Slump of the organization said:

"We got a lot of replies back from our customers in the Dutch community. It became pretty clear to us that we love Sinterklaas and we can't have it without Black Peter. Those two go together."

In 2011, legislators in the former Dutch colony of Suriname stated that government-sanctioned celebrations involving Zwarte Piet were considered an insult to the "black part of Suriname's community." Efforts have begun in the Republic to prevent future governmental promotions of the character.

See Also

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