St. Nicholas’ day: Hands off our Heritage!

St. Nicholas’ day is deeply rooted in the Dutch culture. Therefore it’s not surprising that the recent discussion about St. Nicholas’ day is accompanied by many emotions. Now the discussion has gone international and even the UN interferes it seems St. Nicholas’ day could truly come to its end.

The discussion around St. Nicholas’ day really erupted around 5 December 2012, when a small group of activists under the leadership of the Antillean Quincy Gario started the initiative “Black Pete is Racism”. Quincy together with some friends got arrested, because they, under the watchful eyes of many children, tried to disturb the St. Nicholas’ day in the city of Dordrecht, he quickly established a platform in the Dutch media. With this the once innocent St. Nicholas festivity became a political joust which painfully exposed the subcutaneous ethnic tensions associated with the multicultural society.

It’s striking that in this politicized debate historians seem to be put at the sideline. Little concrete foundation can be found for the assertion that the caricature of Black Pete would by definition be racist. In the celebration of St. Nicholas’ day archetypes and symbols are found that can be interpreted on many different levels. It’s a centuries old cultural tradition with its roots firmly in our ancestral heritage.

During the Germanic antiquity the god Odin was worshipped in the beginning of the winter. When, with the arrival of the first Christians in the Netherlands, the Christianization began, these celebrations slowly but surely got a Christian character. The figure of St. Nicholas is based on a Christian saint who was born around the 3rd century AD in Myra (in present-day Turkey). According to the ecclesiastical traditions dozens of wonders are attributed to him during the fifty years he was a bishop.

Many similarities can be found between the Germanic god Odin and St. Nicholas. Both Odin and Nicholas were invoked as patrons. Both had miraculous powers and were generous donors: Odin gave the seeds for the harvest, while Nicholas protected his people from famine. Both Nicholas and Odin represented justice and marriage. The omniscience, poetry and runes of Odin (the god of wisdom) we find back in the great book of St. Nicholas, the poems and the chocolate letters. Where in ancient times Odin and his eight legged horse Sleipnir were worshipped, there now was St. Nicholas and his white horse who rejoiced the country. The spreading of gingerbread is a reference to the Germanic fertility ritual, which can also be found in weddings (the throwing of rise).

So in contradiction to what Quincy and his accomplices claim, the figure of Black Pete is not the product of slavery, but a reference to our pagan heritage. Black Pete is a portrayal of Odin his black demons. There was Oel the messenger with a bag, who searched for sacrifices and spread the seeds of life. The demons Hugin and Munin informed Odin about the deeds of people. This is exactly the role fulfilled by Black Pete within St. Nicholas’ day; he informs St. Nicholas, spreads gingerbread and takes naughty children back to Spain in his bag. In countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria and Slovenia they still know him as a beast-like demon, Krampus, who scares the population on the 5th of December.

In other words Black Pete is no Afro, no Creole, no negro page, not a Moor, not a slave and not even a servant of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas’ day is not racist. It’s an essential part of our cultural heritage and our age old traditions. Nobody will take that away from us: not Quincy and his accomplices, nor the UN! Hands off our heritage!



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