An Irishman's Diary
In Dutch Christmas tradition, they don’t just have the usual Santa Claus. Sharing lead role in the annual toy-giving operation is a character called Schwarte Piet. “Black Pete”, to give his English name, is Santa’s mischievous assistant. He is also, to many Dutch people, an embarrassment.
The problem with Pete is that he appears rooted in colonial history. He used to be Santa’s slave, until his work contract evolved to reflect more enlightened labour laws. He also used to speak bad Dutch and appear generally stupid: characteristics that have since given way to a reputation for childish playfulness.
But even now, his part tends to be played by white people who “black up” and don the clothes of a medieval jester. So outsiders visiting the Netherlands at Christmas tend to be shocked at the apparent anachronism.
One of the excuses advanced by defenders is that the blacking-up only occurs while Pete is going down chimneys. Yet even a five-year-old child could point to flaws in that logic, namely that: 1. Santa somehow negotiates the same chimneys without a smudge, and 2. that, as every apartment-dwelling child knows anyway, chimneys don’t really exist.
A better defence of Pete might involve the time-honoured Dutch threat to kids who’ve been naughty during the year: namely that, instead of toys, Santa will leave a lump of coal. Recast as a busy coal-man, Black Pete would have some excuse for the make-up. And his appearance would also serve to underline the no-toy threat.
In fact, historically, getting coal for Christmas wasn’t the worst thing that could happen Dutch children. If they were really bad, Santa and Pete would bundle them into sacks and – before you could say “Ho, Ho, Ho” – take them away. Which tradition, if it hadn’t already died out, would have had to be banned by an EU directive.
Not that we in Ireland can preach, given the well-adjusted, law-abiding citizens most Dutch children grow into. Here, in the policing of the naughty-nice index as in other things, we have tended to favour light-touch regulation, with mixed results.
As a parent of three kids – two now graduated beyond Santa years – I think the whole making-a-list-and-checking-it-twice system, with its vague threat of an audit and at worst a reduction in toy numbers, never works. The Dutch approach may be right in that respect, at least. Certainly, if I had to do the Santa thing again, from scratch, I think there would be an annualised increase in the threat of coal.
It so happens in any case that, this Christmas for the first time, a Black Pete will feature in our household. A furry, four-legged one that, as readers might recall, I first encountered as a tiny, sodden lump on a bog road in Tipperary last summer.
Since when, he has grown into a four-month-old kitten: still browny-black but now a foot long and several inches wide, which makes my decision to name him Pete Briquette even wittier than it seemed at the time.
Like all kittens, Pete is very playful. Often, too, there is a mischievous aspect to his activities, as when he attempts to ambush the sleeping old cat for the 150th time this week, despite 149 previous warnings to leave the poor animal alone.
But of late, further increasing the kitten’s resemblance to Black Pete, my children have taken to decorating him with a large Christmas collar. It’s actually a “scrunchy”: one of those fabric rings women use on pony-tails. Except that it’s red and white and has little bells attached. So when the kitten wears it, it gives him the appearance of a jester.
His similarities with Schwarte Piet took on an even more sinister tone recently when I brought home a Christmas tree. At first he watched, fascinated, at the arrival of this strange object. What on earth could it be for, he seemed to be wondering as we attached the decorations. Then, when a bauble swung above him, glinting, he had an epiphany. The tree was – what else? – a giant kitten toy! Since this revelation, the old cat has been enjoying a reprieve from persecution. The kitten’s new favourite targets are the shiny things hanging from the tree. He attacks them regularly, leaping into the branches with reckless disregard for his or the household’s safety. Tree lights are a fire risk at the best of times, God knows. But this Christmas, thanks to Black Pete, my fear is that our whole living room could be replaced by a lump of coal.