The first time I saw him was a shock. I was out for a weekend walk one December afternoon in Ghent, the mid-size Belgian city where I live. Ghent is a bit of a liberal oasis in Flanders, where a troublingly high and growing number of Flemish parliamentary seats are held by the N-VA, an odious conservative party, and Vlaams Belang, the most extreme right-wing political group in all of Belgium.
Ghent, on the other hand, has been run mostly by socialists since 1989, and the city itself can be obnoxiously pleasant. In its tidy, well-maintained, and almost wholly pedestrianized medieval centre, locals often get around on foot or by public transit. Many, though, ride their bicycles everywhere, including the most bobo of all: the young parents on their bakfietsen (cargo bikes), who shuttle their offspring from multilingual daycares to their lovingly restored nineteenth-century homes to observe the city’s designated vegetarian night each Thursday.
That sunny December afternoon was no different. Families and tourists shuffled around the Groentenmarkt, where an alfresco pop-up was serving local oysters and less-local sparkling wine, just across from the sellers of Gentse neuzen (a local nose-shaped candy) and an eighteenth-century mustard shop. I had just turned the corner at the medieval butchers’ guild when I saw him, surrounded by gleeful little children and their beaming parents: Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, Sinterklaas’s Moorish assistant, who is almost exclusively depicted, as far as I know, by white Flemings and Dutch in varying degrees of blackface.
Today, Zwarte Piet serves as a “helper” to Sinterklaas, a very Santa-like old man, red robes and all, who is the main character during Sinterklaasfeest and who visits the Netherlands on December 5 and Belgium on December 6. (Rather remarkably, Sinterklaas requires time to commute.)
The second time I saw him was a strange, deflating disappointment. I was on a bike ride in the Kalkense Meersen, a nature reserve east of Ghent, when I stumbled on not one but three Petes riding along in a horse-drawn sleigh. Again, children and their parents had congregated around the Pieten for fun family photos. Feeling an overwhelming sense of lethargy, I slowly pedalled the remaining twenty kilometres home.
Zwarte Piet is just one of many bizarro European winter characters, but he has the special distinction of being the most racist. Perhaps you’ve heard of Krampus in Austria, a half-goat demon who whips naughty children with a birch branch, or the Bavarian witch Frau Perchta, who slices open the bellies of bad children before stuffing their corpses with straw. In the Franco-German borderlands, there is Hans Trapp (ou Père Fouettard), an Alsatian cannibal who wanders door to door on Christmas in search of puerile flesh.
The Netflix animated sitcom Big Mouth adeptly captured the morbid surrealism of these winter traditions (at least to my North American eyes) during its 2021 holiday special, when two supposedly Dutch twins describe their festivities as “a celebration of life,” not to be confused with the crass commercialism of American Christmas. On December 28 (their Christmas Eve), children drink salted eel milk before placing painted eggs on the windowsill, a small offering to the Mongoose King, who protects them from Vader Johan, another cannibal who lives at the bottom of a river.
Whereas traditions in the north tend to be pretty deranged, things down south often take a turn for the outright nutty. My two favourites come from Catalonia, both offering a scatological take on the holiday merriment. First is a log of wood, known as the Tió de Nadal, which is dressed in traditional Catalan garb and lovingly “fed” and kept warm by children throughout the holiday season. Later, Tió is covered in a blanket, and the children beat him with sticks until he defecates presents.
Then there is the Caganer, a pooping peasant, often depicted in medias res and covertly placed in nativity scenes. This delightful defecator produced a steamy controversy back in 2005, when the Barcelona city council omitted him from the official crèche, lest he encourage bad behaviour in a place that, in my experience, already has enough bad behaviour to go around. Locals, of course, interpreted this as a vicious attack on Catalan culture; the council backed down, and the pooper was restored to his rightful place alongside a miraculous virgin birth.
Back in the Low Countries, Zwarte Piet has proven a bizarre third rail of political discourse. In most larger cities in Flanders and the Netherlands, sightings of him are rare. But in the smaller cities, towns, and villages, where traditions hold a bit stronger, Zwarte Piet is seemingly here to stay.
Moreover, the Zwarte Piet question remains starkly divided along national lines, despite the shared history between the Dutch and the Flemish. Sinterklaasfeest is pervasive in Flanders, but the holiday looms truly large north of the border. This year, for example, Sinterklaasjournal, a news-style TV program with daily reports of the goings-on of Sinterklaas and his helpers, begins its twenty-second season on NTR, the Dutch national broadcaster.
In the Netherlands, radical free-speech principles combined with self-aggrandizing claims to a multicultural openness have placed the entire country and Zwarte Piet on a collision course. The Flemish, on the other hand, tend to be queasily averse to open confrontation, direct eye contact, and the expression of anything that might resemble an opinion. Little surprise, then, that each country has come up with its own ham-fisted way to redress Piet’s racialized Blackness. The Dutch have decided to multiply the Petes, making them a range of colours, as if the problem with Zwarte Piet were not his Blackness per se but the absence of a purple brother.
In tacit response to open Dutch debate, the Flemish have quietly tried to reinscribe Piet’s Blackness, a process that was canonized in a 1993 episode of the children’s TV program Dag Sinterklaas, titled “Waarom is Zwarte Piet zwart?” (Why is Black Pete Black?). Piet is not Zwart (Black), the characters decide, but is covered in roet (soot), thanks to his tumbling down chimneys to deliver presents. The episode concludes with some good dirty fun, when Pete and the white host jump through a sooty fireplace together. (Such claims to sootiness are perhaps belied by the rest of Piet’s traditional costume: a jet-black curly wig, Moorish golden earrings, and bulbous ruby-red lips.)
Swirling around such tightrope recastings have been Bible Belt conservatives and noxious far-right culture warriors, including Vlaams Belang, who claim any rewriting of Zwarte Piet into Roetpiet portends the twilight of Flemish and Dutch culture. Given the touchiness, advocates of Zwarte Piet need to be handled with kid gloves. In Amsterdam, Piet slowly shed his Moorishness over four years starting in 2013: he lost his earrings, his skin grew lighter, and his hair grew straighter. In 2017, Rotterdam likewise began a geleidelijk (gradual) move from Zwarte Pieten to Roetpieten, but only to ensure that the shock was not too great for white Dutch. In 2018, that meant that half the city’s Petes were sooty; in 2019, three-quarters; and finally, in 2020, 90 percent. One in ten grown men in blackface was considered a reasonable concession.
Even in recent years, Zwarte Piet has been the subject of revanchist efforts. In 2015, one government-subsidized organization, today known as the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, placed the whole Sinterklaasfeest, including Zwarte Piet, on its inventory of protected items.
Unlike some urban Dutch, few white Flemings have been willing to brook a wholesale rethinking of the Zwarte Piet tradition, let alone dispose of it. I have been hard pressed to find among my liberal Flemish colleagues and friends more than one person who felt that casting aside the entire enslaved-Moor thing might be a good idea, and even he didn’t know anyone who agreed with him. He grew up in a small city in the Flemish Ardennes, where all this talk of updating Zwarte Piet gets filed today under “woke” nonsense, a common sentiment in both Belgium and the Netherlands. (I recall an otherwise very liberal Dutch professor openly complaining on Facebook about the general Americanization of racial politics in the Netherlands, a country that, in his view, had literally “solved” the problem of race back in the 1990s.)
My friend’s own revelation came a decade and a half ago, at the age of seventeen, when he was tasked with playing Zwarte Piet, in full oily face paint, at a local Sinterklaas event. At the time, he thought something felt odd and uncomfortable about it, but adults wrote off his resistance as teenage rebellion while his peers just asked him to stop being “weird.” Today, he has little patience for the preservationists, who claim that removing Piet — and only Piet; no one is advocating the end of Sinterklaas — is tantamount to cultural genocide. “If this is all our culture has to offer,” he recently explained to me, “then what a shit culture.”
What’s curious about the throaty defences of Zwarte Piet, and of European winter festivals more generally, is that many of these once minor traditions are of relatively recent provenance, particularly for a continent that has been celebrating its own past for two millennia. Some started as pagan or medieval tomfoolery, only to be revitalized over the last few centuries. Yet many of these traditions feel less like the expression of folk cultures from time immemorial and more like retrograde reactions to an incipient modernity: a search for a unique cultural identity in an otherwise increasingly global Europe.
Take Krampus, who seems to have some pre-Christian, Norse origin but was reconceptualized as St. Nick’s buddy in the seventeenth century and seems to have grown into outsize importance only during the latter half of the twentieth century. Ditto dear Frau Perchta. Hans Trapp is based on the story of a real man, Hans von Trotha, from the later fifteenth century, but the cannibal element emerged only about 300 years later.
The Caganer is even newer, perhaps from as early as the seventeenth century but more likely the eighteenth or nineteenth. Tió de Nadal also possesses pre-Christian origins that got rewritten into Christmas celebrations; even then, though, the entire presents-for-beating aspect developed much more recently.
And Zwarte Piet? He’s even easier to date. Sinterklaas is based on a smattering of early modern folk practices and Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Greek bishop. Piet also has his share of loose forebears, including various devils and bogeymen from all over Europe, especially Germany. But the particular character whom we know today as Zwarte Piet derives almost wholly from reworkings of a mid-nineteenth-century Dutch children’s book, Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht (Saint Nicholas and his servant), by Jan Schenkman. In it, Sinterklaas is the bishop of Spain, who arrives by steamboat in Amsterdam, where he hands out treats and gifts, before departing by hot-air balloon or, in later editions, by train (you can’t make this stuff up).
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, from 1850, his “servant” is unnamed. It is only in the illustrations that we see some sort of blackened assistant, and even then he is a tertiary figure, appearing just a few times. Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht is in fact the first work to feature any dark-coloured servant to Sinterklaas, and the character was developed into Zwarte Piet only in later illustrations. In the third edition, the knecht appears in the costume of a sixteenth-century Moorish boy; such children were traditionally enslaved as household servants to the Spanish nobility. Only later, in the mid-twentieth century, was Piet converted from chattel to Sinterklaas’s impish helpmate, but even that’s a bit hard to swallow. As the humorist David Sedaris observes in his incredulous retelling, “I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship.”
Unlike Krampus, Perchta, and Hans, Zwarte Piet simply has no concrete folk past. For so many far-right warriors, though, he remains a wedge issue at the nexus of a dual ahistoricism: a bogus account of Piet’s origins combined with the claim that no one had a problem with a little blackface until a few years ago, when those radicals in the Low Countries imported misplaced American ideas about race.
It was only at the close of the nineteenth century that Piet crystallized in Dutch and Flemish minds as a central feature of Sinterklaasfeest. He was, one might say, little better than the bigoted Elf on the Shelf of mid-nineteenth-century Amsterdam: an urban commercial good that got repackaged as indigenous folk culture. Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht burned through editions — perhaps as many as two dozen in the last half of the century — helping to calcify an image of Moorish servitude as a central feature of a much older celebration.
Amsterdam in the 1850s is not exactly what we think of when searching for a rich folkloric past. Still, cries of cultural erasure are always sung to a similar tune: you are obliterating our traditions, even if “our” means a very select group of white Europeans and “tradition” means little more than the recent past, often based on historical baloney. This fetish for history is at the core of the continent’s self-fashioning, as the Dutch writer and provocateur Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer observes in Grand Hotel Europa, a sprawling pseudo-autobiographical novel (think Michel Houellebecq minus the Islamophobia). The “history of Europe,” his Italian lover explains, is “a history of longing for history.” Pfeijffer’s narratorial stand-in agrees: “Europe has become a prisoner of its own past.” That past has become the continent’s main touristic selling point as its empire-building ambitions have dwindled and its geopolitical might has waned. This is the past, Pfeijffer argues, that has blotted out any potential future.
At the centre of that future are the many peoples of Europe.
Canada, like the United States of America, is a country of immigrants. But the feeling of ingrained foreignness, at least in my experience as a Canadian, has often been a source of pride, even if many of our own ancestors displaced Indigenous populations and even if some increasingly xenophobic voices should give us pause. This rose-tinted sense of identity sometimes leads to absurd pseudo-scientific genealogies — 25 percent Scots-Irish, 12 percent Hispano-Filipino, and so on — but the more important point stands: that a migratory identity is a positive thing in Canada, where our rich collective differences are viewed as a virtue. Multiculturalism is a “fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity,” the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988 declares, that “provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future.”
Things are a bit different in the supposed Old World, where an acknowledgement of or even identification with one’s migratory roots is largely unheard of among nominally white populations. As Gloria Wekker observes in White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, her 2016 ethnographic study of Dutch self-representation, “the majority of the Dutch do not want to be identified with migrants,” even if one in six has “migrant ancestry.”
Those figures put the Netherlands far behind Canada, where, according to StatsCan, just over 30 percent of the population identifies as “Canadian” by ethnic origin (even if, by law, all citizens are de facto Canadians). And change, it is a-coming. In Belgium, about 67 percent of the population is of Belgian origin; 21 percent of citizens are of foreign origin; and 13 percent of residents are non-Belgians (author waves hand in air). But those statistics look pretty different with an eye to the future. As of 2020, nearly 46 percent of Belgian citizens under the age of eighteen — almost half — are of foreign origin.
The point to all of these numbers is not to get into a hand-wringing fit about some great replacement of white Europeans by swarthy foreigners (roughly half of those foreign-born Belgos, in fact, come from other European countries). The point is that many white Europeans, like the Dutch, have no psychic identification with migrants or, most shockingly (at least for this hoser), with their own migratory past.
In present-day Belgium, history matters except when it doesn’t. A dark imperial legacy remains unresolved. Yet in the wake of Black Lives Matter, the country has been forced into some very public reckoning for its wrongs. Plenty of attention has been directed, for example, at its atrocities in Africa, especially during the Congo Free State (1885–1908), a quasi-colony run by King Leopold II, and later during the Belgian Congo period, which ended in 1960 with independence.
Less than two decades ago, young Belgian students learned plenty about the helpful Christianization of the Congolese and surprisingly little about the roughly three to ten million who died during Belgian rule, the formal system of economic exploitation, the plague-like epidemics, and the brutal punishments dished out in the pursuit of rubber and power, including the routine severing of hands. Adam Hochschild’s chilling account, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, from 1998, helped change that, as did internal pressure to acknowledge not only the country’s enormities but also the long-term consequences of the colonial period for Belgians of African descent. That pressure has only increased in recent years. Streets named after colonial shills and everyday racists have been rechristened, while statues of Leopold II have been vandalized, defaced, and sometimes toppled and removed.
Belgium’s culture industry has also been forced into some begrudging soul-searching. During a five-year renovation completed in 2018, the AfricaMuseum near Brussels was reconceptualized, though it has failed to fully shed its origins as Leopold II’s propaganda tool for currying favour at home and abroad. Today, stolen artworks, overtly racist statues of “savages,” and murals of eroticized female nudes and grateful children sit alongside newly commissioned pieces, often in uneasy tension and purposeful juxtaposition. Not everyone has been happy with the sometimes shabby results, but the museum, to its credit, continues to evolve. In 2021, for instance, it committed to returning objects to the Congo that had been obtained “illegally.” But chains of provenance are sometimes difficult to track during genocidal pillaging, so no one knows whether a tiny fraction or a substantial share of the museum’s 90,000 pieces will leave the collection.
A few months ago, a group of activists, writers, and scholars in Antwerp called on the city council to commemorate the 1894 World’s Fair at the reopening of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. The fair included a horrifying “human zoo” of 144 Congolese who had been imported to Belgium by boat. Seven from the group eventually died, before being buried in a mass grave. The museum, where the zoo was staged, has offered a cagey recognition of its own complicity. On the Dutch version of its website, the institution places the blame on the city council, which organized the fair, and on the administrators of the Congo Free State, who arranged the zoo. Even still, it “deeply regrets” this “painful story,” claiming, “Vandaag zouden we ons verzetten tegen zo’n inhumaan project” (Today, we would oppose such an inhumane project). Chapeau for your bravery.
In all of this, Belgium’s entire past has, at the very least, been up for discussion, rethinking, revision, and reckoning. Except, it seems, when it comes to Zwarte Piet. The Flemish writer Dalilla Hermans first rose to national consciousness following a 2014 open letter on her feelings of frustration about being Black in Belgium: the aggressions and microaggressions, the routine police stops, the looks and comments. Both that open letter and her later interview series about race, she writes in Het laatste wat ik nog wil zeggen over racisme (The last thing that I want to say about racism), received mostly positive reactions at home.
Not so more recently, after she penned an even-handed essay in which she supported the Pietenpact, a cultural initiative to retain Piet, but only sooty Piet, as part of the holiday. She was even more generous with Piet’s defenders. They were not racists, she claimed, but merely people who were anxious about a loss of identity. That essay was followed by a tempered TV debate, after which she received hundreds of messages full of racist and misogynist tropes, photos of penises, detailed rape scenarios, and death threats targeting herself and her family, including her children.
The profound sensitivity around Piet, which is frequently met online with anonymized rage in Belgium and the Netherlands alike, means even anti-Piet sympathizers tend to bite their tongues. “It’s telling,” one colleague told me, when I asked him whether he would discuss Zwarte Piet with, for instance, his father. Most Flemings simply “avoid talking about it with certain friends and family,” he explained, in hopes of avoiding “heated debates.”
For consequentialists, we spend too much time rummaging around in the motivations of potential racists and not enough time attending to the actual harms of various race-based policies and actions. It doesn’t really matter whether the landlord has a demonstrable racial animus in his heart of hearts; what matters is whether people of colour are denied fair access to housing.
An attention to consequences rather than to the demonstrability of racist beliefs also helps to focus attention on the effects of a repugnant caricature like Zwarte Piet. Again, it doesn’t really matter whether the Flemings and the Dutch possess that magical racism-causing bone. What matters is how children of African descent in the Low Countries are treated and how these caricatures of Moorish trickery lead to schoolyard taunts, rejected job applications, stop-and-frisk policies, and violence.
It’s worth emphasizing, too, that Zwarte Piet, for all of his soot-washing and herkleuring (re-colouring) over the last few decades, was and is a negative representation of Blackness. In older accounts, Piet is enslaved to Sinterklaas; today, he is at best a lovable trickster and at worst a threateningly sneaky idiot. In either case, Gloria Wekker has written, Piet is an example of “ritualized degradation,” Stuart Hall’s term for the everyday mortifications that seem so natural to whites that they require no explanation at all. Such debasements have real-world effects. It has been routine for decades for juvenile Flemings and Dutch to call their Black peers Zwarte Piet in icky jest. One Flemish colleague of mine, who is in his forties, remembers referring to his Black friend Willy as Zwarte Piet once when he was eleven, before slowly realizing that he had done something hurtful and wrong.
If Piet were suddenly to vanish in 2023, what, exactly, would the Flemish and the Dutch actually lose? Again, even the staunchest anti-Piet advocates have no interest in abolishing either Sinterklaasfeest or Sinterklaas Day or Sinterklaas himself. One could imagine a different world, where children could grow up with no Petes at all and, as far as I can tell, nothing would be lost to them. They might encounter instead an array of Sinterklaasian helpmates, some Saartjes and Sonjas and Willys and Wouters, with the added benefit that their childhood memories, unlike their parents’, would lack the lurking stink of racism.
Only adults would feel some sort of ache, one purely nostalgic, for a tradition partially lost but mostly just revised at the margins. What they would see, perhaps, during the annual Sinterklaas parade is a group of multiracial helpers alongside an audience of smiling, multiracial children, all of whom might better represent the past and the future of the Low Countries. And despite such changes, those nostalgic white parents would get to keep their childhood memories of a cozy little world before Black Lives Matter and all this yucky talk of racism. Those memories would remain; no one, not even all those woke snowflakes, could take them away.