Today, the sixth of December, is the Feast of Saint Nicholas, a holiday of Catholic origin. In many European countries this is the holiday of commercialization, the day on which gifts are given to children. Christmas is a holy day, a day of worship, a day of family gatherings.
The feast day of Saint Nicholas happens to be the first day of advent, the period of preparation for Christ’s birth. Six December is the day of Nicholas’ death in 343 AD, his life is reputed to have been marked by graciousness and the giving of gifts to the needy, often anonymously. Although his origins were in present day Turkey, his following was most intense among the Germanic peoples, even after the reformation he was celebrated throughout the Netherlands and Germany, where Saint Nicholas was known as Sinter Klaas, which became Santa Claus.
Our tradition of Santa Claus differentiating between the “naughty” and “nice”, and of elves assisting Santa Claus, are derived from Saint Nicholas as well. In Medieval iconography, Saint Nicholas is sometime depicted as taming a demon. This idea morphed into a servant, in Hungarian depictions an actual demon (Krampusz), in Germany “Farmhand Rupert” (Knecht Ruprecht), and in Belgium and the Netherlands a Moorish servant named Black Pete, or “Zwarte Piet”.
The tradition of Zwarte Piet can be traced to 1850, in a story by Jan Schenkman, “Santa Claus and his Servant”. In the story the servant is nameless, but is depicted as dark skinned and wearing clothing associated with the Moors. The two characters arrive from Spain, enhancing the Moorish connection. By 1859, Dutch newspaper De Tijd noticed that Saint Nicholas nowadays was often accompanied by “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less populair than the Holy Bishop himself”.
I find this sad, particularly the day following the death of Nelson Mandela. How do I make that connection?
Black Pete is Black. His skin is the color of his ancestors, his clothing is the style of his times. If anything is racist it is the depiction of a Turkish Saint as a pale man with a snowy beard. Nelson Mandela was a great man who championed human rights. The crimes of apartheid and slavery are not about the color of one’s skin, but the denial of rights to other human beings. When one focuses on skin color they have missed the point. When one misses the point, the crime continues.
Christmas is about the birth of Christ.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas is about celebrating generosity.
Black Pete is a Moorish servant, thus his skin is black.
Will we, one day, decide that traditional South African clothing is a racial stereotype, and that depictions of Nelson Mandela should be seen as racist unless he is portrayed as a white man wearing a polo shirt, dancing to eighties music rather than a black man in traditional dress dancing to traditional African music?