Svarteper turns purple

svarteper

Photo: Arnold Bartels / Wikimedia Commons
Demonstrators in the Netherlands protested the racist undertones of the Zwarte Piet tradition, which often involves white people dressing up in blackface and wearing black wigs and large earrings.

M. MICHAEL BRADY
Oslo

According to the folklore of the Netherlands and the other Low Countries—Belgium and Luxembourg—Svarteper (a Norwegian translation of Zwarte Piet in Dutch, literally “Black Pete” in English), so named because he is a Moor from Spain, is the sidekick of Sinterklaas (“Saint Nicholas” or “Santa Claus”). Each year, he makes his first appearance on the Eve of Saint Nicholas Day, Dec. 5, a nationwide but not public holiday—or at least he did, until recently.

svarteper

Image: Author unknown
St. Nicholas and Black Pete, 1850 book illustration, Amsterdam.

The origins of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are unknown. But some scholars have linked them to the Oskoreia, the Wild Hunt led by the Norse god Odin. On Sleipner, his white horse, Odin leads by flying through the air, accompanied by Huginn and Muninn, two black ravens. With Zwarte Piet, the ravens listen at chimneys to report to Odin on the behavior of the humans below.

There’s no trace of this lore in Norwegian-English dictionaries, in which Svarte­per is translated to “Old Maid,” a traditional card game. There’s an American connection in that translation. The term “Old Maid” first appeared in print in 1530 in a book by John Palsgrave (1485-1554), a priest of Henry VII of England’s court. But the card game Old Maid was first mentioned in print in 1831 in American Girl’s Book, in which its description included the advice, “When played by girls, three of the Queens must be put away as useless.”

That definition didn’t travel into Norwegian, in which Zwarte Piet long was mentioned only in connection with the celebration in the Netherlands of Sinterklaas on Dec. 5. Clearly, the Norwegian translation of Svarteper to “Old Maid” traveled via the American description of a round card game in which three cards are removed from a pack and the remaining ones distributed among the players, who then draw cards from each other until all are paired, save for an odd one held by a player who becomes the “Old Maid.”

Then, early in this century, the rhetorical character of Svarteper changed.

First, Zwarte Piet became an unacceptable term to use, because Black people found it racist, starting in the Netherlands in 2013. They changed his color from black to purple, so he’s now Purple Pete, although many find this to be an attempt to paint over racism in a new color. Then the idiomatic translation via “Old Maid” to “Odd man out” in English led to it becoming a synonym for scapegoat.

In that sense in 2015 in Norway, Svarteper became a slang term for fall guy, the premise of an amusing critical essay, “Svarteper i gransking” (“Svarteper in official inquiry”) by Norwegian Business School (BI) professor Petter Gottschalk (www.bi.no/forskning/business-review/articles/2015/01/svarteper-i-gransking). So today, Svarteper might be considered unacceptable and may appear in texts with themes not associated with the celebration of Christmas.

See also:
“Oskoreia, Norway’s Wild Hunt is a darker side of Jul” by M. Michael Brady, The Norwegian American, Dec. 26, 2014: www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/oskoreia.
American Girl’s Book by Eliza Leslie, originally published in 1831 by C.S. Francis & Co, of New York & Boston, facsimile stocked by Amazon.com in Kindle, hardcover and paperback editions.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.

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