Monday, 5 May 2008

Who is Zwarte Piet anyway?

Today I've been finding out more about the curious character known to the Dutch as Zwarte Piet and to the English as Black Peter.

In our more PC age, the idea of someone blacking up to play the part of Father Christmas' assistant seems awkwardly out of place. But that is exactly what happens in the Netherlands at the start of December.

The Dutch version of Father Christmas, Sinter Klaus, arrives by boat on the last Saturday in November with his helper Zwarte Piet. Children are told that this Black Peter is Spanish and will whip naughty boys and girls.

However, the truth of the matter is that he actually pre-dates the Christianizing of the midwinter festival. For Black Peter was once the Dark Helper, a horned, shaggy haired demon, slave of Odin, father of the Norse gods.

If that's whetted your appetite and you want to find out more, you only have to wait until October. What is Myrrh Anyway? has a whole chapter concerning the origins of Father Christmas, from Odin and his Dark Helper through to Clement Clarke Moore and Coca-Cola.

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