The history of Black Peet, or Zwarte Piet, is a subject of much disagreement. The explanation that makes the most sense to us (and seems the most likely) is that just as wealthy Dutch families once had black servants, so did Santa Claus. Rather than the elves we’re used to seeing in America, Santa’s helper in Holland and all over the Netherlands is a smiling, minstrel show-meets-Shakespeare-style, black-faced man, such as the chocolate rendition at right. That’s a traditional holiday gift.
Another story, apparently made up to quell the cries of “racism,” is that Black Peet is actually a white Dutch guy; he’s just covered in chimney soot. We think it’s safe to say that 1. That’s not supposed to be a white Dutch guy and 2. That’s pretty much equally as offensive and ignorant.
According to one of the guides we had in Holland, in recent years, the shops have tried coming out with Red Peets and Yellow Peets as well, to make the whole thing a little more “it’s just different colored guys” (could they have picked more offensive colors? WTF, Netherlands?), but the children didn’t care for it. Black Peet is their tradition, and when handed a Yellow Peet, they’d look at the adults with (perhaps appropriate) disapproval.
To this day, The Netherlands’ candy and toy shops are full of Black Peet merchandise around the holidays. The photos in our gallery were taken in early November in Amsterdam and The Hague (Den Haag). Black Peets are actually spotted all over Europe, though in fewer numbers. This certainly isn’t news; the tradition is ages old, but we were so struck by the variety of Black Peets available, we couldn’t help but photograph them.
For further study, here’s a video by some people who encountered Black Peet in a grocery store in Berlin, saying, “In America we have that too, but we call it ‘racism.'” Warning: none of the Peets you see there are actually black people (they’re wearing makeup), and also, after the grocery store portion, the audio becomes NSFW.
This trip was paid for by the Netherlands Board of Tourism, but the ideas and opinions expressed in the article above are 100% my own.