Few European Christmas traditions elicit as many diverse and divergent opinions as Black Pete of the Netherlands. Santa’s former slave may have been whitewashed in recent years, but many still view him as a racist caricature from the country’s colonial past.
Myths about Santa’s sinister helpers are as widespread in Europe as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In parts of Germany, Knecht Ruprecht brings terror into the hearts of naughty children when the gift-giving season arrives. In Austria it’s Krampus, the horned devil who torments adolescents with asocial tendencies. In France, Pere Foutard does the proverbial whipping. Kids in America are threatened with coal in their stockings if they act up, but in European folklore, they are beaten with switches or stuffed in sacks. Brutal stuff. But in no country is the tale of Santa’s diabolical sidekick as bizarre as in the Netherlands, home to Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”).
The story of Black Pete is unique on the continent and it is also one of Europe’s oddest and most titilating Christmas traditions — one that tends to raise the eyebrows of foreign visitors and local immigrants. No small number of people see the yuletide character as a racist emblem of Holland’s colonial past.
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