So who is this Zwarte Piet?

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Like in recent years the debate about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet flared again this year. Critics say the tradition of Zwarte Piet is racist. Yesterday UN investigator Verene Shepherd suggested the tradition should be abolished. The UN is even investigating whether it is racist. But who is Zwarte Piet actually, and where did he come from?Sinterklaas, the supervisor of Zwarte Piet, is based on Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who lived around the year 300 in present day Turkey. In the 13th century, he got his name day on December 6. From then on the Nicholas Worship spread across Europe.

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Some legends caused him to become the patron saint of children. Nicholas of Myra reportedly brought  murdered children back to life and saved children from dangers. Eventually it became the Sinterklaas celebration.

Traditionally Sinterklaas did not have a helper, but the Dutch teacher Jan Schenkman introduced a colored servant in his book 'Sint Nicholaas en zijn knecht' (Saint Nicholas and his servant) in 1850. Schenkman also introduced the annual entry of the Saint and the steam boat. In 1859 the helper was called Pieter for the first time, and around 1900 the name Zwarte Piet became common.

The origin of Zwarte Piet also has a number of popular scientific explanations. One is that Nicholas of Myra freed a black Ethiopian slave named Piter. Another explanation is that Zwarte Piet is a kind of devil, subjected to the Saint, who must perform good deeds. A frequently heard explanation for the color of Zwarte Piet is that he turned black from the soot after climbing down chimneys.

According to the director of the Rijksmuseum Wim Pijbes, Zwarte Piet can at least be traced back to the 16th century. The earliest example dates from 1520. A small painting of a proud black man, who probably played a role in the court of  Karel V (Charles V). He wears a With a beret and a velvet jacket, all attributes of Zwarte Piet, according to the director in the Radio 1 News.

In the course of the 20th century Piet developed from a rather unintelligent assistant, speaking in broken sentences, to a capable assistant to the scatterbrain Saint. Also, Zwarte Piet is no longer used as a deterrent for naughty children. The rod and the sack to ship to children to Spain, disappeared into the background.

In 1859 the Sint only had one helper at his disposal. During the first official arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam in 1934 there were six helpers. Six Surinamese sailors from a ship that happened to be in the harbor, joined the Sint.

Nowadays there are often dozens, or even hundreds of helpers and they all have a specialization. There are Packing helpers, warehouse helpers, Transport helpers and of course the Head Piet.