Each November, Sinterklaas, who is the Dutch version of Father Christmas, sails from Spain to the Netherlands. He’s accompanied on his journey by lots of helpers dressed up as Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet, with black faces and fuzzy wigs, and often red lipstick and earrings.
Then, at the Feast of St Nicholas on 5 December, all the Black Peters lark about like clowns, they hand out sweets to excited children and everybody laughs at them. Sinterklaas, meanwhile, who is dressed as a bishop and is treated with the utmost respect by everybody, tells all the Black Peters what to do.
"Black Peter is said by some to be a caricature of an African slave – made worse by the fact that the people pretending to be Black Peter are actually white, with blacked-up faces and wigs."
Is Black Peter racist? For the Dutch, it seems to depend on your viewpoint and background. The tradition dates back to the mid-19th century and the Dutch have a terrible history of slavery and colonial domination, particularly in Surinam.
Black Peter is said by those who are offended by him to be a caricature of an African slave, made worse by the fact that the people who pretend to be Black Peter are actually white and have blacked-up faces and wigs, and are thought to be hideous caricatures of black people. Another problem is that all the Black Peters are being given orders by a white man who is a figure of authority and is obviously in charge of them – another throwback to slavery, as is the idea that they’ve come across the seas in a boat.
Many black people in the Netherlands object very strongly to Black Peter, and don’t like the fact that he’s such a caricature and that this boatload of Black Peters arrives with this single white authority figure, with its echo of the slave trade. These days, there are protests at his arrival, but apparently, in the Netherlands, children aren’t really taught about their nation’s involvement in the slave trade in the past – they’re told all about the United States’ and Britain’s, but the Dutch record on slavery is kept conveniently quiet. For the country’s white people who grew up with Black Peter, he’s just one aspect of the traditions and general enjoyment of Christmas.
However, changes are taking place. His appearance is changing, in Amsterdam at least, so in future it will look just as though he has soot on his face from clambering up and down chimneys, rather than being blacked up. I imagine it's what you'd call a work in progress.