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Opinion

As Covid and cancel culture claim Christmas’s Black Pete, another much-loved figure is consigned to history

Scrapped festive parades and the campaigning of Black Lives Matter mean the children of northern Europe may have seen the last of Zwarte Piet, a helper to St Nicholas and beloved by many, who is traditionally seen in blackface.

At around 200 years old, northern Europe’s Black Pete has survived the lot; the passage of time, a disapproving United Nations, being called “disturbing” by Kim Kardashian and questioned by the Rev Jesse Jackson, plus a ban from Facebook. On top of all that, he’s faced a decade of protest in the Netherlands. 

Now, it seems the joint efforts of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter might finally see off St Nicholas’ loyal helper. But he won’t go quietly, as the punch-up between pro-Pete supporters and Kick Out Zwarte Piet protesters proved in the Dutch town of Venlo at the weekend.

For years, Black Pete – with his blackface, thick red lips and afro wig – has featured in the street parades that take place across the Netherlands and parts of Belgium in the run-up to the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, on December 5, when families unwrap presents and sing songs. Legend has Saint Nicholas on a horse with Black Pete alongside as they hand out presents to children, having arrived down the chimney of people’s houses.

But no more. He’s fallen foul of the race brigade to be replaced by ‘Soot Pete’ – grey streaks on his cheeks – and even by ‘Cheese Pete’, complete with yellow face. Zwarte Piet has been cancelled.

With no parades this year and consequently no sightings of Black Pete, then the chances of his imitators in blackface appearing next year, or ever again as the cultural wars continue to rage, look slim. The rich mythology of northern Europe will be asked to erase all trace of the brightly dressed character who played sidekick to Sinterklaas for centuries.

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Assistants of Saint Nicholas called "Zwarte Piet" (Black Pete) or "Roetpiet" (Soot Peter) arrive by boat at the harbour of Scheveningen, Netherlands, on November 16, 2019.
‘Kick out Black Pete!’ Anti-blackface paranoia comes after Dutch children’s festival tradition

Sure, the Netherlands is not the place it was back at the start of the 19th century when storyteller Jacob Grimm first mangled together a number of like-minded legends from the Low Countries to form the basis of the Black Pete myth. And thanks to its colonial escapades, the demographic of the Netherlands now comprises a sizeable black population drawn from former colonies Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Namibia and others in Africa, Suriname in South America, and the Caribbean.

While the activity of the Dutch in those far-off lands largely centred around slavery at the time and may call for some serious reflection, Black Pete has nothing to do with human trafficking from Africa. Or racism, for that matter. He’s a Spanish Moor with a clearly defined role as an employee of St Nicholas. Spoiler alert: he is not real.

Maybe there is some tacit recognition of the entire fantasy from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who admits wearing blackface in the past while dressed up as the now-controversial character. He defended that practice as recently as 2014 – with the brilliant logic of “Black Pete is black, and I cannot change that because his name is Black Pete” – but has now changed his tune and cooled on the cultural icon.

Earlier this year, after meeting Kick Out Zwarte Piet activists, Rutte refused to ban Black Pete outright, but suggested that social change would ultimately spell the end of the character appearing in parades. It is “changing over time, under pressure from the societal debate,” he said.

Never one to deny a chance to flag up his woke credentials, the Dutch PM did, however, tell MPs that his own attitude had undergone “major changes” after talking to people “of a darker skin colour.” Not sure that’s the language in the BLM script, but hey, at least he didn’t fold like wrapping paper and ditch 200 years of history at the first asking. 

With a poll in June from TV current affairs show Een Vandag showing support for Black Pete had dipped down to 47 percent down from 89 percent in 2013, his claim that time will do for the character what Kim Kardashian failed to, could well be spot-on.

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NBC host Megyn Kelly © Reuters / Mike Segar
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While the cultural mood might suggest one course of direct action, the numbers – 47 per cent is not to be sneezed at – don’t really back up a heavy-handed intervention over a character interwoven with the childhood of so many voters, sorry, I mean generations of people. 

If Rutte thought it was a winning move, the man hailed as Europe’s liberal torchbearer would put an end to Black Pete tomorrow. However, by doing absolutely nothing at all, he preserves his cherished liberal sanctity and simultaneously stays on-side with the cultural conservatives.

Without doubt, Mark Rutte would have that approval over a handful of sweets from Black Pete on St Nicholas’ Day anytime.

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