Warning! This post reflects the culture found in the Netherlands and may therefore be a bit shocking to the "politically correct" culture found in the US! That's just how it is here folks!!
In other cultures, the figure of Nicholas has different helpers. In many parts of Germany, this is a dark figure called "Knecht Ruprecht" which translates as Servant or Farmhand Ruprecht. In some instances the Saint and the Knecht play "good & bad" roles with Nickolas handing out treats while Ruprecht threatens to beat the children with switches if they don't behave! My DH grew up with the tradition that on 6.December, along with a small present from Sankt Nickolas, the children received a bundle of switches that are tied together with ribbon and hung with various chocolates and candies. Children were often admonished that if they did not behave, then all they would get is the bundle of switches! In the US you can hear this reflected in some of the tales about Santa Claus.
In other European countries, this helper has a similar role but different names: Krampus (in Austria, Hungary, Solvenia, Croatia and some surrounding reagions), Klaubauf (in southern Germany), Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Belzeniggl, Buzebergt, Rumpelklas, Bellzebub, Hans Muff, Hanstrapp or Drapp (in various regions of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy, eastern France and countries bordering Germany), and Le Pere Fouettard (Northern France). In most instances these companions are portrayed as ugly or comical figures, some even having horns and resembling a demon or devil. They often carry a rod or staff, sometimes a scythe or sword, or a whip or bundle of switches. And they all carry the sack for Saint Nicholas. In some incarnations, the companion is dressed in rags or all in black, while in others he is dressed like Nicholas, but has a darker complexion and dark hair and is unkempt compared to Nicholas. In some regions, however, Nicholas is accompanied by a young angel, a blond sweet-looking child or young woman. In the Czech Republic this is Anděl (Angel).
Depending on the region, "Nicholas Day" is celebrated on the 5th or the 6th. In some areas, he arrives at the door and the children are summoned to perform a poem or song before they are given their presents. It may be that the companion reads a list of the things naught children have done or is angry and mean and telling the children they deserve no presents. But while this can be scary, it is also fun for many children and they look forward to the show every year, practicing what they will say to convince the visitors that they deserve a present (which they always get in the end!).
But the Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg (Benelux) region is unique in its tradition of Zwarte Piet and this character is cherished as the biggest part of the Nicholas celebration. Through the years, especially since WWII, the legend developed to include more than one companion. Thus we have "Zwarte Pieten" (plural). All of them are named "Piet", and wear a colorful costume reminiscent of a Renaissance European page including pantaloons, ruffled collar, feathered cap, long stockings, buckled shoes (although nowadays replaced by sport shoes) and black gloves. But each has a different function and role to play in the ever-expanding drama that is the feast of SinterKlaas. Of course you have the main helper Piet (HoofdPiet), but also one in charge of the presents (PakjesPiet), one in charge of the poems (GedichtePiet), Piets in charge of Sint's horse Amerigo (PaardePieten), and of course dancing Piets, singing Piets, the Piets in charge of handing out/throwing the candy and cookies (StrooigoedPieten), etc. One of my favorite characters is MuziekPiet who is the lead singer and in charge of making up new songs for Sint. Funny, but instead of the usual Piet costume, he has a hairstyle and outfit resembling Elvis in his Las Vegas years!
But all of the Zwarte Piets are black! No, not African-American! No these are black-faced characters and even those actors of darker complexion wear the black make-up! While there has been some controversy over the usage of blackface, and every year you can find discussion forums on the political correctness of this character, all efforts to change this have not been accepted. In 2006, one of the main TV stations in the Netherlands tried to introduce rainbow-colored Piets in an effort to get away from this stereotype. Viewers stayed away in droves and a parade hosted by the TV station with all different colored characters was booed by the public. The whole idea was dropped very quickly.
Whereas in the US you may have someone dressed as Santa Claus collecting on a street corner, or even a street band of Santa Claus musicians, in the Benelux this is a role for Zwarte Piet. As Sint can't be everywhere at once, oftentimes you will only see Piets who then will collect the drawings and lists and be sure and bring them to Sint. One year DD1 was not at all impressed with the SinterKlaas we had met on the market. She informed me very knowingly that he was not the "real Sint", but just a helper dressed up like Sint as she was aware that SinterKlaas could not be everywhere at once. But, she informed me, the Piets were real. Thus she was not at all concerned that her drawing would not make it to the real SinterKlaas. Many schools have a day when Piets comes to visit and collect the drawings and wishlists from the children, leaving behind treats and small presents. Funny enough, though, these Piets often get a bit rowdy playing with the children's things and leaving behind a big mess at school. My daughters were outraged at these RommelPieten (messy Piets)!. And of course before the children were allowed to eat their treats they had to clean up the mess! At many schools every year there is some sort of theme around SinterKlaas and company. One year, one of the Piets had fallen in love with one of the teachers. Everyday the school received a love note with a clue as to which teacher it was. There were internal polls taken amongst the children as to who they thought it was. One class even made a bar graph showing the results. The speculation grew every day. One of the younger classes was very upset as they were sure it was their teacher and were afraid that she would go back to Spain with Piet and they did not want her to leave. They wrote a special letter to Sint and were relieved to learn with a personal letter from him that is was not their beloved teacher.
Dutch television has a special program each year with news about SinterKlaas and reports about all the various activities and dramas around his visit to the Netherlands. My daughters still insist on watching this every evening, though they really have outgrown SinterKlaas now. My blogfriend in Belgium, Goofball, reports that they have a different story there with Sint arriving in their country at a different location.
Now you have to understand the characters of ZwartePieten. Many of them are young and rather naughty. This stems from the original legend where they were naughty children who were put in Sint's sack and taken back to Spain! And they are very acrobatic (for the most part) as they are the ones who climb down the chimney and carry the sack of toys and treats. So of course almost every school gym lesson in November at some point has an obstacle course for the children to follow in order to earn the PietenDiploma! In the street parades and at the markets you will see a number of Piets handing out candy and pepernoten. But in some places they actually throw the candy, hence the term "Strooigoed" (stuff you throw). Especially at the school visits where the children perform for SinterKlaas, the Piets can be quite rambunctious and at times Sint has to calm them down. But it is all in good fun and the kids are usually quite happy to let the Piets join in their dances and throw candy at them. And whenever they see one on the street, the call to him by name yelling "Piet! Piet!" and are guaranteed a smile and a wave as if they are personally recognized. I have heard funny tales of Dutch children on summer vacation in Spain who, upon seeing a black person on the beach or street, have called out "Piet! Piet!". And in areas familiar with Dutch vacationeers, the child was usually rewarded with the same big smile and wave, thus confirming their identity!
And while in the US you find Santa hats and outfits, for the most part in the Netherlands the children all want to dress up as Piet. Well of course! You get a really colorful costume, and you can choose whatever color you want. Oftentimes it is satin or some soft material, though the fancier ones include velvet. The ruffled collar is not always pleasant, but simpler costumes leave that out. And you get a great cap with a feather. Many schools have craft activities where the kids make their own feather cap. But best of all you get to put on black makeup! Some kids are content to just a few smudges on their cheeks, but others go all out with their entire face and neck covered in black. Topped off with a curly black wig and a cap, the sight of the white eyes and bright smiles (sometimes with missing teeth!) from such shiny black faces is comical and touching at the same time. And of course there are one or two who will dress up at Sint. But you get to have a lot more fun as Piet! No wonder the parents no longer threaten their children about getting put into the sack and sent off to Spain. Kids in the Netherlands love ZwartePiet and many would jump at the chance without hesitation! I know of several teenagers who relish their role every year as a "helper", spending money of their own to embellish their costumes.
So while he may be a bit outdated, and definitely on the naughty side with some of his antics, and he is certainly not politically correct and is definitely a stereotype, I can't help myself, I love ZwartePiet! I would definitely go off to Spain with him!!