19 november 2019 23:43
[ This article in Nederlands ]
In ancient and pre-Christian Europe, black was the color of death. "Ater" in Latin does not only mean black, but also ominous. The word is related to "atrocity". Black was the color of the underworld, of devils and demons.
The Slavic people knew the black Chernobog. In Scandinavian folklore, the black ‘Draug’ existed before the year 1000. They were the dead who escaped from their graves. Blackened under the influence of decomposition, they harassed the living with their supernatural powers.
The living could appease the dead with rituals. To begin with the funeral of the deceased himself. In the report of Ibn Fadlan from 921 we read how the Volga Vikings dress their — blackened — dead captain a few weeks after his death, in Byzantine side with golden knots, to burn him — surrounded by food, a dead dog, a chopped up horse and a brutally murdered girl — together with his ship.
Traditions like this disappeared under the influence of Christianity.
Fortunately — if I may say so.
However, the Feasts for the Dead still existed for centuries around the transition to winter. The time when, according to folk tales, the spirits could invade the world of the living. Food was put at doorsteps to appease the roaming dead. Young people paraded in processions through villages wearing masks or black-painted faces.
Such parades existed throughout Europe and survived the end of the Middle Ages. Groups of youngsters dressed up as Bogeyman-like figures, paraded in the streets, begging for food, on holy days like St. Martins day or Krampus night. In the Netherlands, according to religious almanacs from 1700, from November to Epiphany in January. The British Isles were familiar with the tradition of Mummers and Guisers during this season, that can be traced back to 1296. In Paris these parades took place on Saint Nicholas' name day reports a French book in 1843. It specifically mentions that the procession with youngsters dressed as satyrs and devils was curtailed in 1525.
Even in the work of the American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, a ‘demon black as soot’ appears in an old Polish folk tale that his mother told him as a child.
Today we find traces of these traditions all over the world. In Halloween, in Día de Muertos, in Saint Martin's day, in Sinterklaas, New Year's Eve. Probably also in Up Helly Aa — and I undoubtedly didn't mention them all. Older components get new meanings over the years. In some festivals, eras or locations, the emphasis is more on warding off evil spirits, in the others more on sharing food in poor winter times.
In 1850 the picture book of schoolmaster Schenkman gives a new twist to the old Dutch Sint Nicolaasfeest. His Sinterklaas became a bit friendlier than he was before and he replaced the helper, who occured with Sinterklaas in some areas. With this, the youngsters who went from door to door, being absurdly dressed, making weird moves, with faces full of black soot, got a new role.
The helpers and callers, who locally had their own appearance and name, made way for ‘Zwarte Piet.’ A figure that appeared in every new edition of his book more and more like an African slave or Moorish page. Large gold earrings, afro-style wigs, red lipstick and full blackface makeup cannot be found in publications older than 1850.
Schenkmans book started a trend that meets with protests today. Well: since 1930 already.
I have seen and heard the excesses of Schenkman's trend in the schoolyard: school-parent-council-members, often prominent in a school, were allowed to say to a little boy with a Surinamese grandparent 'You don't have to paint your face, because you're already black.' For me at that time, reason to look for another school for the youngest daughter: neither the SPC-member nor the headmaster could be addressed against. Response from headmaster: Yes, that [MR member] is the target group of our school. Great, thanks: apparently I don't belong to your target group.
Even today, my daughter's girlfriends are being called names: "Zwarte Piet". Fortunately, my daughter's school punishes such behaviour.
This kind of behaviour has no resemblance whatsoever with "a children's festival". This behaviour will simply damage that entire festival. After all, it excludes certain children from the party mood.
Perhaps we — like Schenkman did? — find the original Bogeyman figures that were intertwined with the December festivals too creepy. Perhaps we prefer to see our ‘Good Saint’ in the company of real people rather than demons, satyrs or living dead. Fine. But to achieve that, we do not have to keep following the path Schenkman took in 1850.
European folklore is rich enough to draw on a multitude of winter Bogeyman figures. Many old publications mention soot, as you can read in the references. Soot from the bonfires that to ward off evil spirits, soot from hell, soot from the chimney. So, dust off the original winter Bogeyman, search in old engravings , prints and stories and choose — together — another figure.
That will benefit the entire Sinterklaas party.
And for those who still can't find peace with a new old Winter-bogeyman a.k.a. Soot Piet?
Apply for asylum somewhere far away.
There is undoubtedly a country where even less rationality exists and where traditions will never go further back than the 19th century.
[ Summary: The ‘Zwarte Piet’ character with the appearance of an African slave, did not occur until 1850. European folklore contains enough medieval narratives to compile a beautiful new, older ‘Zwarte Piet’ — or whatever you want to call him. In fact, the tradition has always been subject to change. Untill 1850, the only unchanging factor in it, was the victory of the living over the dead. ]