Friday, December 3, 2010

St. Nick, Black Peter, and a colorblind kid

Stella came home after school, proudly displaying two paper dolls she made, Saint Nick and Zwarte Piet.
Lovely. Saint Nick, typical. Ok. However, along with St. Nick, comes Black Peter. As many Americans, I seriously don't get Black Peter. For many Americans he's, um, awkward. Not to mention, controversial. For most Europeans, he's simply part of the holiday. No need to make a mountain out of a molehill, but Black Peter is like a rock in my shoe. Just plain uncomfortable.
Never heard of Black Peter? Here's the scoop, but there are a variety of flavors...all sorts of stories about how Black Peter came about.

Here in Belgium, St. Nick Day, the feast of Saint Nicholaus, is celebrated this weekend (December 5/6).  He was renowned by medieval Christians for his kindness to children and is known here in Dutch as "Sinterklaas". St. Nicholaus has largely been represented in the same way, dressed in a red robe, tall bishop hat, white beard, carrying a staff. Traditionally, children's boots will be placed at the door or chimney/fireplace, and in the morning they will be filled with clementines, candies, and perhaps a small toy. A delightful opportunity for seasonal fun and games.

Then there's the side kick, Black Peter, who arose in Holland a very long time ago. The exact origins of St. Nick's helper seem to be a little obscure and unlike St Nicolaus, his costume has altered over time. Currently he is often dressed as a Renaissance page with a large white collar, wearing stockings, short pants, and a cap with a large feather. Black Peter can often be spied in numbers around town halls, flashing a white toothy grin and tossing candy to gleeful crowds of children. There seems to be controversy as to how Black Peter became black. One story suggests that he was associated with Spanish pirates, and was known to take naughty Dutch children to a hide out and beat them. (This is truly a story I feel we should share with our kids this Christmas.) As a result, his dark appearance is considered to be that of a Spaniard. In later years it was said that he was an Indian or African slave that became a willing servant of St Nick.
Other stories indicate he became black simply from going down the chimneys. Hmmm. It works for the sake of political correctness...
No one can confirm how he got his skin tones, but the latter is what we'll be sharing with the kids. As an American, this is, to say the least, awkward. But it's not our tradition, it's theirs. We're merely visiting (and grateful) guests. Still, I promise you, he's a rock in the shoe. It seems completely wrong. Am I just an American baffoon making a hullabaloo over nothing? Perhaps.
For example- here is a clip of Black Peter arriving with his sack before a crowd of cheering children...



It seems, at least initially, a shockingly blatant and outward sign of racism. But then again, perhaps as an American, I'm overreacting a bit. Most folks around here see him as a harmless tradition. The US of course, has been, over time, plastered with politically correct etiquette. (That is not to say much of the population has learned anything from PC school. Many folks, still can't grasp that 'the only race is the human race' concept, even 150 years after the Civil War and 50 odd years post the civil rights movement.) Yet, the American version of Santa's helpers are elves. Little people who assist in toy production, loading the sleigh, prepping reindeer for their journey- whatever. We don't hear people with dwarfism screaming in protest. Likewise, you don't see black folks in Europe protesting Black Peter. He's simply part of the holiday.

So, for now, I'll take a deep breath, perhaps a swig of egg nog, fix a cocktail, and move on. I may never understand why he even exists nowadays. Call me a nitwit. Ultimately, a Black Peter debate seems to interject racial concerns where they weren't meant to be and he doesn't appear to be an enslaved minority as Americans would see it, but instead a part of the Christmas tradition in Europe. Most importantly, when I asked Stella if she knew who the guy with St Nicolaus was, she said "yeah, that's Pete his helper". No mention of black. No indication of racial undertone. No need to give way to further discussion. A colorblind kid in this case is a beautiful, dear, sweet, wonder and I hope she will always see him that way.

So get your boots ready kids. St. Nick and Black Peter are comin' 'round.

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