My interest in Saint Nicholas and his sidekick, Black Peter, began when I heard a party guest mention that there was an black element in the Dutch Christmas. Some accounts have Nick as Peter’s sidekick. Coincidentally, at the time, I was invited to the Netherlands to participate in a poetry conference. While there, I was able to witness the ceremony of St. Nicholas and Black Peter (aka Zwarte Piet) entering the Amsterdam port on a barge. They were accompanied by “Senoritas.” The presence of Senoritas suggested that Peter was of Spanish origin–perhaps a Moor who was introduced to the Netherlands when the Spanish occupied the Netherlands from 1556-1566.
When the party came ashore, the actor playing Saint Nick mounted a white horse and began a procession through the streets. Black Peter, a white actor in black face, rode along in a sports car. The children paid more attention to Pete than to Nick. One of the reasons was that it’s Pete’s job to distribute the gifts. At one time the bag containing the gifts supposedly held naughty children who were kidnapped and taken to Spain.
My curiosity about Saint Nicholas and his relationship led to two novels, “The Terrible Twos,” and “The Terrible Threes.” I’m currently working on “The Terrible Fours.”
“The Terrible Twos” was translated into Dutch by one of the leading Dutch poets, Hans Plomp. It received a rave in The New York Times by reviewer the late John Leonard, but was ignored in the United States, virtually. The Nation magazine said that it was proof that I was done as a novelist. But since I am considered a “cult” writer by some, maybe my cult has kept it in print since 1983.
My Christmas series was influenced by African American artists like Betye Saar and Joe Overstreet, who were transforming stereotypical images of blacks in popular culture. For example, Aunt Jemima, the smiling face on the pancake mix became armed. My Black Peter became a Rastafarian in “The Terrible Twos,” and a sort of recovery counselor in the “Threes.” My Saint Nicholas is a socialist in both books, but in the coming novel makes a deal with department store owners.
But just as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. have been toned down for popular consumption, the smiling rosy cheeked overweight white man in red suit is an American invention. Modifying Clement Moore’s rendition of a rotund Santa Claus, the great abolitionist illustrator Thomas Nast dressed him in a red suit for the 1863 Harper’s Weekly. This image covers up the real Nicholas who was a troublesome figure for the church because he is ubiquitous like Christ, and he could also be rowdy. In A.D.325, he slapped a man named Arius because he was upset with Arius’s claiming that Jesus was not God. Nick was arrested and thrown in jail, not exactly the kindly old gent upon whose lap parents aren’t afraid to place their children. Moreover,will these same parents leave cookies and milk out for Nick when they discover that he is the patron saint of prostitutes?
Nicholas has had an on again off again relationship with the Catholic Church. On February 14,1969, he was demoted by Pope Paul VI from the calendar of Saints.
So Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Black Peter are more complicated than how they are treated in the popular press.
Black Peter is controversial because the Dutch smear themselves with black face when performing that role. Still, Black Peter is one of the handful of positive traditional images of blacks in Europe. In the popular media in the United States, blacks are sometime portrayed as takers. Black Peter is a giver.
Now was Saint Nicholas white? A debate over the subject recently broke out on Fox News. Saint Nicholas was born in a part of the world that is now present day Turkey. Some say that he was Greek. Others say that we don’t know how he and his kinsmen looked.We’ll have to await the committee that decides such things for an answer. I imagine them to be blond and blue eyed. Maybe meeting in secret in Iceland. Inspecting a long waiting list of applicants and indignant about America’s slack compliance.
The advertising for an art show that I saw in front of a shop located on Ave. A in New York City indicates that the American Christmas is really going to get complicated. The ad carried a portrait of Krampus, Black Peter’s evil twin who goes around kidnapping European women and children.While my partner, Carla Blank, and I headed for the theater, where she was assisting director Rome Neal in the production of my new play,”The Final Version,” I paused and snapped a photo of it.
I also noticed some kids dressed as Santa migrating from bar to bar as part of something called SantaCon 2013, an annual pub crawl in which people dress up like Santa and other holiday characters.
SantaCon has occurred for years, but after a few particularly rowdy installments, the event has gotten some in the city in a tizzy. Many New Yorkers this year expressed concerns about the level of business at SantaCon, which reportedly draws 30,000 people to New York and has been known to feature Santas puking, shouting and urinating publicly all over town.
SantaCon evokes the image of the 19th Century Xmas as portrayed in an account on stnicholascenter.org with “raucous, drunken mobs roaming the streets, damaging property, threatening and frightening the upper classes.” With millions of people out of work, what will future Christmases look like, now that Krampus is back?