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The Story of Sinterklaas and Black Pete PDF Print E-mail

The Story of Sinterklaas and Black Pete

Some of the current traditions surrounding "Father Christmas" or Santa Claus can be traced back to Celtic roots. His "elves" are the modernization of the "Nature folk" of the Pagan religions, and his reindeer are associated with the "Horned God", a Pagan deity.

The origin of Santa Claus actually begins in the 4th century, with Saint Nicholas as Bishop of Myra, now Turkey. St. Nicholas was a generous man, particularly devoted to children.

Santa and Christmas Stockings

santapete-450According to legend, a kindly nobleman grew despondent over the death of his beloved wife and foolishly squandered his fortune. This left his three young daughters without dowries and thus facing a life of spinsterhood, or worse, they could have been sold into slavery to pay the family bills.

The generous St. Nicholas, hearing of the girls' plight rode his white horse by the nobleman's house and threw three small pouches of gold coins down the chimney. They were fortuitously captured by the stockings the young women had hung by the fireplace to dry.

After his death around 340 A.D. he was buried in Myra. In 1087 Italian sailors allegedly stole his remains and transported them to Bari, Italy. This greatly increased St. Nicholas' popularity throughout Europe.

His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise to claims that he could perform miracles so devotion to him increased. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia, where he was known by his red cape, flowing white beard and bishop's mitre. In Greece, he is the patron saint of sailors, in France he was the patron of lawyers, and in Belgium the patron of children and travellers. Thousands of churches across Europe were dedicated to him.

Around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honor. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6 and the day was marked by gift-giving and charity.

After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled, but the legend was kept alive in Holland. There, the Dutch spelling of his name, Sint Nikolaas, was eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.

Before Santa Travelled to America he had a Side Kick!

Of course, we don't want to forget Black Peter, St. Nick's menacing assistant. Black Peter was purportedly Sinterklaas's companion, and was his physical opposite. Originally he was portrayed as a stereotypical Spaniard in pirate garb, due to the political situation in Holland at the time. In the nineteenth century, at the height of imperialism, he was alternately portrayed as an Indian and an African in traditional dress. Rather than the devil that had been made a servant of St. Nicholas, Black Peter was now thought to be a slave who had become the willing servant of St. Nicholas. Many of the illustrations took on racist symbolism, often showing Black Peter in shackles and tattered garments. In parts of central Europe like Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, the character of Black Peter was more like a monster, a little man with horns, long hair, and a red tongue. He was known by a variety of names: Klaubauf, Krampus, Grampus and Bartel. St. Nicholas sent naughty children to him to be beaten.

Black Peter was obviously associated with the punitive side of Christmas. Traditionally, St. Nicholas would hand out presents to good children, while it fell to Black Peter to dole out coal and sometimes knocks on the head to children who misbehaved.

Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet in Holland in the 15th century, carried a large bag that was rumored to be used for stuffing children in for the trip back to Spain, or to to the coal mines. At the time "Black Peter" was a euphemism for the devil, and it was thought that St. Nicholas, being a representative of God, had beaten the devil and made him his servant. It fell to Black Peter to hand out the punishments, while St. Nicholas dealt with the more pleasant side of Christmas.

You better watch out this year! Black Pete might leave coal in your stocking. Hint: If he does that a week before Christmas, it means you're a bad kid. If you don't clean up your act, he'll put you in that bag of his on Christmas Eve and steal you away to the coal mines. Once there, you'll have to work, but not after a good beating or two! (I think they liked to beat their children in the Medeival days... )

Click here to see a larger version of Linda's Painting, and read more about why she portrayed Pete as she did.

Last Updated on Thursday, 10 December 2009 01:30