Zwarte Piet or Black Pete can always be recognized by one or more of his four characteristics.
Zwarte Piet or Black Pete can always be recognized by one or more of his four characteristics:
1. his masquerade of which the cheapest form is a black face. 2. his chain 3. his bag or basket sometimes filled with coals. In the Netherlands the sweets (pepernoten) and presents are in the bag. 4. his switch (roe). often hides and horns are seen as well.
First his masquerade. In Europe with it's whiteskinned people blackening the face with soot was very helpful with camouflage if a person didn't want to be noticed in the forest, especially at night. It is still used in the army. Ancient people did have this form of camouflage at their fingertips: they just had to put their hand through the charcoal of their fireplace and they had the perfect stuff to blacken their face. It was very effective. This blackening of the face also got it's place in traditions of various tribes. This blackness can also be recognized in Zwarte Piet (Black Pete.) The dark and light represented in Saint Nicholas and Black Pete has to do with the midwintersolstice. The Sinterklaascelebration is in origin a midwintercelebration.
Secondly his chain. With the introduction of Saint Nicholas the christian church wanted to wipe out paganism and it's traditions. This was easier said than done because ancient traditions were very strong and people weren't willing to give them up so easily. So to show that Christianity was dominant and the pagan figure (representing evil or the devil from the churches point of view, which of course he wasn't!) submissive he had to wear a chain to represent this submission. It is interesting to see that the dark helper always stayed popular with the poor and oppressed people. They saw in him the one who made faces to the church and authority behind the back of the good and Christian Saint. They saw in him the reflection of their good old pagan figure that was free and joyful. (Renterghem)
Thirdly his bag or basket. Sometimes filled with coals (for blackening or sometimes leave in a shoe) but also used to transport the bad kids, or the naughty teenage girls or the sinners to hell, later on to a place where they would learn how to behave properly. (In the Netherlands this place is Spain!) The similarities for this use of the bag in different European countries is striking. In the Netherlands this bag is usually filled with sweets and pepernoten and the presents kids will get!
Fourth his switch (roe) A symbol of fertility from pagan times. This is still visible when fertile young females are beaten with the switch as is seen in other regions in Europa and still plays a role on the Waddenislands. In the Netherlands the switch has been mostly done away with but the traditional Sinterklaassongs still make a mention of it. Also wrapping paper is often adorned with the switch along with other symbols of the Sinterklaastradition. And even if the switch no longer plays a big part in the Sinterklaastradition, children are often warned that they will not get presents if they aren't good! So in a sense the switch is still there. Saint Nicholas and Black Pete don't care nowadays if the kids have been bad or good! They tell parents that when they hear them say this to their kids. Maybe changing the meaning of the switch is an idea here too. Especially since it is still in scope. Note: Other characteristics of the companion can be hides (pelts) and horns. Sometimes a character that has almost every characteristic of the companion is still called Klaas or Sinterklaas. This is explained in the subtab: Companions of Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands under "Merged Figures".
In the Netherlands Black Pete still has his black face and usually carries a bag. A chain is almost never seen. On TV and the official celebration the switch is not used anymore. The switch is mentioned in songs and used as decoration on merchandise though.
Here we see the black face and the bag in Knecht Ruprecht from Germany
Here we can see the dark face, the bag, the switch and the chain in Hans Trapp from the Elzas in France.
And in Hausecker from Luxembourg we recognize the dark face, the chain, the bag and the switch.