I was not a particularly good little boy at that time.
The same thug would give nice kids candy.
To my great surprise, every year I got as much candy as the smarmy little freaks did. It was miraculous. Aside from a few threatening moves by the big black terror, he proved to be rather a generous sort.
Every year on the night of December fifth, an Iberian holy man would ride over the roofs on a white horse, accompanied by his blackamoor servant Peter, to sneak down chimneys and reward obedient children. Peter (Piet) was usually played by strapping young ladies in garish blackface, dressed in poufy mediaeval pants and doublets, with a fuzzy-wuzzy wig and a big colourful hat.
It wasn't until I was eight years old or so that I started noticing disturbing elements about the whole thing.
Number one: the all-knowing all-seeing holy man had a horrible memory, and was quite likely senile as all git out: he couldn't remember what I had told him the last time we met, and didn't know me from Adam. He was very unreliable, and possibly crazy. Plus he stank of mothballs.
Number two: Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) seemed to have soft hands, and was actually rather kind. A pleasant dude, if you will. I'll admit that it wasn't until I became aware of breasts that I also noticed that Pete had those.
He was kind of like a Thai she-male prostitute in that regard.
That being a concept I did not know about at the time.
Of course, that was when you could still purchase a confection marketed as a 'negro-kiss'. They were also called negress titty (negerinnentiet). Thank god that is no longer the case! No one should have to associate brown mammaries with whipped egg whites, sugar, and chocolate!
Not even lactose intolerant people!
Well, it was the sixties. Which was not necessarily a kinder, gentler age. Just very different from the modern world, and a lot more crazy.
We no longer have negerkussen or negerinnentetten. That's all gone.
Zwarte Piet, however, is still frightening the bejazus out of children. Except that there are now more of him. Saint Nicholas used to have one helper, two at most, now there are often over half a dozen.
And, disturbingly, many of them are male.
I don't know about you, but the idea of a strapping young damsel about to birch kiddies is far more comforting than a strange adult man in disguise doing so. Admittedly the whole idea is berserk -- fake black men from Iberia in drag whupping arses and then handing out candies, on behalf of a demented priest -- but heck, any old excuse for a bit of insanity around the cold part of the year is gladly accepted.
Here in the United States, we've got a grossly overweight red-faced pervert (drinking problem? Rosacea? Venereal-disease rashes?) that wants you to sit on his lap, or else you won't get any presents -- whose off-shore tax dodging sweatshop employs height-deficient people at probably starvation wages -- in Holland they have whippings, chocolate, and marzipan.
It seems far less depraved.
But still. Black face. Shiny dark skin. A foreign bogeyman.
AS BLACK AS SOOT
Originally, Black Pete was an enslaved troll, devil, or daemon, who accompanied Wotan around at midwinter. The candies and gifts were always there, as was the threat of punishment and kidnapping.
It wasn't until after the Eighty Years War, during which the Spanish tried to exterminate the Dutch, that both the good cop and the bad cop acquired Iberian characteristics. You can fear the Spanish bastards, but sometimes you can also get nice things from them. The good cop in this equation is actually a fictionalized transplant from Asia Minor, the bad cop is either a Mauritanian or a Berber, and possibly speaks Arabic in addition to bugga bugga boo.
Neither one of them is a real Spaniard. The real Spaniards are still evil depraved sons-of-bitches, whose galleons must be sunk whenever and wherever encountered. Subhuman bastards.
Saint Nicholas and Black Pete are denatured Spaniards.
Sort of like muppets and fairies.
That may change. Conceivably the Spanish might be upset to find out that they are the bad men in this tale. They're part of the Eurozone, we shouldn't despise them too much. The crats in Brussels would object.
And given that they're broke, no sugar anymore.
Spaniards with candy; so last century!
Black Pete may have to revert back to being a shackled devil, and the good guy could again become the mythic Greek holy man who protects travellers, especially sailors. In a sea-faring nation such as the Netherlands, naturally a numinous entity like that would still be venerated.
An evil Spanish bully, not so much.
In fact, Black Pete is many things, not just a sadistic torturer of little children. He is the fool, the wise guy, the amanuensis, the source of candy, the capable assistant, and the provocateur. He is also the diplomat who intercedes, as well as the able faker whose whippings seem more impressive to the observer than painful to the victim.
But conceivably the black facial goo should go.
Perhaps just a teenage girl in mediaeval drag. Which, underneath the curly frightwig and sootcake make-up, was usually the case. Teenage girls can be quite terrifying, even and especially to older boys. She's perfect.
I'm thinking tight bodices, and similar fetching garb.
Discreet eyeshadow, temptress lipstick.
Stiletto pumps, six inch heels.
We do, however, need a third type to play the role of villain. Someone who can be made fun of, despised, feared, and hated.
I would suggest a woman in a flaming red muumuu and ridiculously oversized crimson toque.
Fool, dunce, irritant, hectoring bore, poseur, shrill harpy, object of derision, smarmy, opinionated, and wrong about many things. A ranting loony, the frightening foreigner, and a terrifying spectacle. Both the costume and concept are already there, all it takes is a talented volunteer.
But fercrapsakes, no skin-paint.
A funkadelic accent, okay.
La Cucuya. Fareentje.
Let us even up the ante a bit. A cannibalistic shape-shifter, who will leave her innocent victims deaf, dumb, and blind, with a menacing wolf's growl.
I believe there already is such a thing in Netherlandic folklore, and we might as well co-opt it.
SAINT NICK, 'SWEETY PETE', AND AN OGRE
Traditions change. Nothing today is quite the same as it once was, and even our folklore must adapt. Sometimes there are elements there which because of familiarity, fondness, and proximity, we might not realize are offensive or absurd. We are too close for perspective.
I am grateful for Ms. Verene Shepherd for pointing out that we Dutch speakers are a bunch of cretinous retrograde racists, and demanding that we adjust to the modern age. Without her strident whining, we never would have understood that.
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