catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 23 :: 2007.12.14 — 2007.12.28


Black Pete at the manger?

It is December, and I’m going to write about Black Pete. Why? you ask. You have asked well. Black Pete belongs to the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition. And Sinterklaas has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. That’s why the Dutch separate Sinterklaas and gift giving from Christmas. But you, reader, have probably surrendered to the North American way of combining gift-giving and Christmas. So even though you have asked a very good question, your own practices show how confused you are yourself and that you have no right to question me on combining Christmas and Black Pete.


Possible scenario

Now I could string you a line and say that Black Pete was a servant of one of the magi who came to Bethlehem to worship the King of the Jews. Judging by their lavish gifts, these astrologers were independently wealthy and would certainly be surrounded by an entourage of servants. These servants had to protect their masters and serve them. Some of these servants had swords on them.

But there was one fellow of dark complexion who had chosen as lethal weapon a bunch of twigs tied together with a string made of twisted donkey hair. And he carried a gunny sack with goodies on his back. The bunch of twigs was for punishing naughty kids the magi would come across on their way to Jerusalem, and the gunny sack, filled mostly with ginger bread cookies, was for rewarding kids who were helpful along the way by fetching water for the camels. The name of this fellow? You guessed it: Black Pete, or “zwarte Piet” as Dutch traders who had sold him on the market in Ur of the Chaldeans had called him. The man who bought Zwarte Piet from the Dutch traders was none other than one of the magi whom we call Balthazar, but who was know to his friends as Sinterklaas.

People in Jerusalem couldn’t stop laughing when they spotted this fellow with a white beard, a flowing red cape and a strange looking hat, known as a miter, riding a white Arabian stallion through the Sheep Gate right up to the palace of Herod Antipas. Fortunately, Zwarte Piet was there to take care of the poop and scoop thing, using his bag with goodies as a temporary deposit. You can imagine that Herod would have been mightily upset had this fellow Sinterklaas left his horse’s calling card on the shiny pavement in front of the palace. I won’t bore you with details about how Moshe son of Ephraim threw a stone at the horse and how it bucked but was unable to dislodge the saint. Had the incident taken place a few centuries later it would have earned Sinterklaas points at the Calgary Stampede. If that anachronism bothers you, think of the fact that a Catholic saint was present in Jerusalem at the time of the birth of Jesus.


December connection

As I said earlier, I could string you a line about this strange combination of Black Pete and Christmas in my article, but I won’t. I’m simply a too honest and decent fellow to do that sort of thing. No, the reason I am writing about Black Pete is that I was once a Zwarte Piet in Holland, before we immigrated to Canada. The date was December 5, 1945. Get the connection now? December—the month in which we celebrate Christmas—and me, the person who was a Black Pete, exactly 62 years ago on December 5, the day that I am writing this article. By now, the practice of gift-giving is all mixed up with “Silent Night, Holy Night” in your mind anyway, dear commercialized reader, so this particular topic should not bother any one of you.

Yes, on December 5, 1945, I, Bertus Witvoet, an 11-year-old snotnose from Joure, Friesland, was enlisted into the service of Sinterklaas by my Dad. You see, my Dad was a hairdresser, and every year he would rent a number of Sinterklaas and Black Pete costumes from a costume rental firma in Leeuwarden. Add those costumes to the outfit that my mother had made years ago, and presto, he was ready to churn out all kinds of Sinterklaases and Black Petes in his salon on any given December 5. We as kids would see certain towns people we knew (all men, of course) come into the “ladies” salon on that eventful day and emerge an hour later as Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.


Bereft of faith

Is it any wonder, dear reader, that as kids we never believed in Sinterklaas?  “Oh ye, of little faith,” you might say. But how would you sustain that kind of faith if every time you went to bed you would be staring at our own homemade Sinterklaas staff that was leaning against the wall in a corner, next to the flagpole. And from time to time we would crawl up the ladder to the attic and open the box where the costumes were kept, choke ourselves in the miter that came down to our chin, never mind the fact that once a year my Dad had male customers come into his ladies parlor. How could we possibly take serious all this stuff about a saint who was hundreds of years old and who rode his white horse from Spain with his trusty black servant trotting alongside, all the way to our cosmopolitan town of Joure, inhabitants 5,000, four times that many around the time of the Jouster fair? Or had his party boarded a ship at Gibraltar? The details were always were a bit cloudy.

No, when the pseudo saint and his soot-covered servant appeared on the deck of a local merchant’s freight ship, I would stand on the quay, hands in my pocket, snickering at all these gullible kids around me. I have a suspicion that there were even a few adults in the crowd who were shaking in their boots or wooden shoes at the thought that their bad deeds had been recorded in Sinterklaas’s diary. How they were fooled into thinking that the old grey mare that belonged to farmer Herman Holtrop had made the thousand-mile journey on the dilapidated fifty-foot-long "ocean liner" that pulled into our harbor goes beyond me. More used to pulling a load of manure, the old hack had absolutely no interest in prancing up and down the deck, as one of the Sinterklaas songs requires. 

I still have a 1939 black and white picture of all the Kindergarten kids of Joure with Sinterklaas and Black Pete in their midst. I was five years old and standing in the back row. My friend Clarence Alkema from nearby Whitby, Ontario, who is one day younger than I, is also in the picture. I’m quite sure that Clarence took Black Pete at face value—no doubt he thought of him as Sinterklaas’s servant from Spain. But I knew better. And I don’t say that because I was and am one day older than Clarence! I knew it was Uiltje Dijkstra, who lived four houses away from ours. He didn’t have an ounce of Moorish blood in him. His dad sold locally grown vegetables and fruit. There was nothing exotic about the Dijkstras. You could tell that they had no connection with Spain or Africa because during the war years they could not get a hold of a single orange or banana. No, when it came to Sinterklaas and Black Pete, I wasn’t even an agnostic. I was downright pagan.


Mission unexpected

But I digress. On that fateful December 5, 1945, I was dragooned into service by Dad. The situation was as follows. A rich family in our town was having a Sinterklaas evening at their home for their kids. The father was part owner of a printing business, and so he had asked one his employees to function as Sinterklaas. For that purpose, he arranged with my dad to rent a costume—none of that homemade Sinterklaas stuff with a Persian table cloth as cape, pulled-apart cotton balls as beard and wig, and a cardboard miter on his head. No, he got a real Sinterklaas outfit with beard and wig made from real hair, and fancy costume that would look great on any Catholic bishop. But he must have been a little stingy because he had not ordered a Black Pete for the occasion. So what does my dad do? He throws me into the bargain. “Here, take my son. A Sinterklaas without a Black Pete is like an Ephrata shepherd without sheep.” Well, he didn’t put it quite that way, but he could have, had he known about the way we mess up Christmas and gift-giving.

So my face, neck and wrists were quickly covered with black make-up and I was stuck into a smart-looking Pete outfit. I never knew who Sinterklaas was, but together we stepped into a taxi and rode to the house of the rich but stingy factory owner. Sinterklaas never bothered to talk to me. I was probably below his status. I had a bag with me, and someone at the door stuffed a few presents in it that I had to give to a couple of spoiled brats. When it was time to leave the room where the family had gathered, the grandmother stuffed a rijksdaalder (a two and half guilder coin) into my white-glove-covered hand. I guess she was little freer with money than that cheap son of hers, raising the question in my eleven-year-old mind: ”How shall the young direct their way?” And then we were driven home again, and my life as Zwarte Piet came to a sudden and anti-climactic end.


In conclusion…

That was December 5, 1945. Less than two months later my Dad suddenly passed away. The Sinterklaas staff stood forlorn in the corner of our sleeping quarters for several years, and the costumes lingered in the attic. We took the costumes along to Canada in 1950, where they were used for a few Sinterklaas events. And thus Sinterklaas and Black Pete became landed immigrants in 1950.

So what does all this have to do with Christmas? you ask. Nothing, zilch, nada, niks. And that’s my point about gift-giving at Christmas, you see. These things just don’t belong together, no matter how cleverly you connect the gift of Jesus in a manger with the gift of an I-pod underneath the Christmas tree.

Blessed Christmas, all of you!

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