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Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Black Pete, And Racism


Last week was December 6, the date celebrating St. Nicholas.

And December 25 is going to be Christmas, the day when Christianity celebrates the birth of baby Jesus.

What do these two dates have in common? My namesake saint.

A Tale Of Two Saints

St. Nicholas, also known as Nikolaos of Myra, was a Greek bishop who lived in the 4th century AD. The legends surrounding his life portray him as a kind and giving man of extraordinary abilities, whose feats included the resurrection of three slain children.

The tradition of bearing gifts in his name can be found mainly in Central Europe, especially among the Dutch, the Austrians and the Germans, and among the people of the Italian and French Alps. The tradition apparently started from the Low Country seafarers who’d assemble at the harbors to celebrate the occasion, and buy items from the markets for their loved ones on their way back home.

Some of these presents were saved for Christmas. Others were offered straight away, to the children.

Hence the Central Europe tradition of bringing gifts on that day, which gradually evolved into the world-renowned, white-bearded, gift-bearing Santa Claus – a practice now observed across many parts of the world.

Saint Nick’s Little Helper

Back to Saint Nicholas. Tradition says he comes with a helper called Black Pete.

Black Pete is a dubious character. His role is to grab the misbehaving children, bag them, and carry them off to Spain, where they’re punished for their bad deeds.


It’s not hard to see why this part of the tradition never caught on in the Santa Claus narrative.

It’s also not surprising that it has come under fire in the Netherlands recently, where, for some reason, the tradition is observed to this day.

People with common sense know that this tradition probably has racist – or culturally-dubious and outdated – roots

In particular, only last month, Verene Shepherd, a Jamaican academic, complained that Black Pete was a racist notion, threatening to involve the UN, for whom she works.

Defenders of the tradition retorted by claiming that the Black Pete character is black because he comes down a chimney, which is full of soot, not because he’s African.

Critics were quick to point out that chimney soot doesn’t
 account for the bright red lips and Afro-style hair, which are signature features of Black Pete.

Advocates have always maintained that there’s no trace of racial discrimination in the tradition. Black Pete simply has black skin, red lips, curly hair, and is dressed in a Renaissance-style page outfit, period.

People with common sense know that this tradition probably has racist – or culturally-dubious and outdated – roots. They also acknowledge that it’s harmless.

Last but not least, they acknowledge that red is first and foremost a great colour for made-up lips, especially on a dark background, which makes for a scary character, which is what Black Pete is supposed to be.

Which makes critics mad because it sounds like people are taking the piss.

And the discussion rages on.

Note: The UN has not gotten involved. Its spokespeople distanced themselves from Verene Shepherd’s initial charge.

Tradition Or Racism?

It’s important to note that the Netherlands is known for its culturally tolerant and socially progressive system. Many members of minorities say they have no problem with the tradition. Prior to this year there had been no negative incidents involving Black Pete celebrations.

Others say that bigotry and racism have been creeping back into the once-tolerant Dutch society, and that Black Pete is a foot in the door. One look at the resurgence of the Dutch radical right (see Geert de Wilders, a firebrand politician, whose party was part of a coalition government for a short time) is enough to raise eyebrows and make people nervous.

So here’s the million dollar question:

Is Black Pete A Racist Practice? Or Is It A Religious Tradition That Shouldn’t Be Criticized?

There are points to be made on both sides. The critics of the tradition have exposed a possibly latent streak of Dutch racism, while its advocates make their case that it’s a tradition that has harmed no one over the years.

But the discussion doesn’t end there. There are two more questions that beg to be asked.

If we deem this tradition racist, are we also free to criticize, judge, and rally against other religious practices we deem offensive, oppressive, and hurtful? Does it work both/all ways?

If, on the other hand, we deem this tradition acceptable, do we do so because it’s religious – or because it has proven to be a non-violent, non-discriminatory, non-oppressive tradition?

These questions, of course, open up the field to a great many more, all of which have to do with religion, tradition and culture across the world.