By Mac Carey
Before elves and eight tiny reindeer, St. Nicholas had a much more menacing assistant. Named Black Peter, this companion was the physical opposite of St. Nicholas. Tall and gaunt with a dark beard and hair, Black Peter was associated with the punitive side of Christmas. Traditionally St. Nicholas would hand out presents to good children, while it fell to Black Peter to dole out coal (and sometimes knocks on the head) to children who misbehaved.
Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet in Dutch, began in Holland in the 15th century. His dark appearance is supposed to suggest a Spaniard, a reflection of Spain’s occupation of the Netherlands at the time. Black Peter was also associated with pirates, a common threat to naughty Dutch children was that he would take them to a pirate’s hide out and beat them. He was often represented holding a large stick for this purpose. The large bag that he held was rumored to be used for stuffing children in for the trip back to Spain. At the time “Black Peter” was a euphemism for the devil, and it was thought that St. Nicholas, being a representative of God, had beaten the devil and made him his servant. Thus it fell to Black Peter to hand out the punishments, while St. Nicholas dealt with the more pleasant sides of Christmas.
While the Dutch St. Nicholas has always been represented in much the same way, similar to the original saint in long robes with a staff, tall mitre hat, and white beard, Black Peter has been depicted in many different ways. Originally a stereotypical Spaniard in pirate garb, due to the political situation in Holland at the time, his later incarnations would also reflect popular politics. In the nineteenth century, at the height of imperialism, he was alternately portrayed as an Indian and an African in traditional dress. Rather than the devil that had been made a servant of St. Nicholas, Black Peter was now thought to be a slave who had become the willing servant of St. Nicholas. Many of the illustrations took on racist symbolism, often showing Black Peter in shackles and tattered garments. Peter’s job was to remove the hay and carrots from the shoes that had been left by children underneath their chimneys, and to drop candy and gifts in their place. If the children had been bad, Peter wouldn’t remove the hay and would leave a rod in place of a gift.
In parts of central Europe like Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, the character of Black Peter was a more like a monster, with horns, long hair, and a red tongue. He was known by a variety of names: Klaubauf, Krampus, Grampus, Bartel. St. Nicholas sent naughty children to him to be beaten.
Nowadays there is still not one universal image of Black Peter, but he has lost his large stick and is usually dressed in a Renaissance page style costume with short pants, stockings, and a cap with a large feather. He has not lost his connection to Africa; he is still always portrayed by a person in blackface, and often wears gold earrings.
The character gained popularity in the twentieth century and St. Nicholas’s and Black Peter’s annual arrival in Holland became more elaborate. During World War II, it was thought that the tradition would be suspended, until Canadian soldiers offered some of their tanks to use for the purpose. It didn’t seem to make sense to have more than one St. Nicholas. So on one of the tanks rode St. Nicholas and one Black Peter, while multiple Black Peters rode on the other tanks. The tanks, with Canadian soldiers at the helm and Black Peter sitting on the back, traversed the countryside, handing out candy and gifts to children who waited by the roadside. The practice of more than one Black Peter stuck and has continued since then.
Today the negative associations have left Black Peter and he has become more of an elf-like figure, an assistant to an overloaded St. Nicholas who helps to hand out gifts every December 5th, St. Nicholas Day in Holland. The Dutch continue to stage elaborate arrivals of Santa Claus and Black Peter. In the weeks before the feast, Santa and Black Peter arrive by boat, supposedly from Spain, and are greeted by ever increasing crowds of excited children and adults.