Once again, violent controversy has erupted over Black Pete, the figure from folklore in Holland and Belgium who is personified as the jester companion to St Nicholas in some of the Christmas celebrations in those countries.
While I’m not an expert on the folklore of the Low Countries, I understand that Black Pete originally came into being as some form of devil or demon, then he changed to become a Moor. There are all manner of other explanations for his appearance, but regardless of the character’s origins or function, it’s clear that many people take exception to what they view as Black Pete’s inherently racist nature, which in their eyes is compounded by the fact that the character comes into being as a result of white people ‘blacking up’ their faces.
Those who take exception to Black Pete are entitled to their views, but I find it strange that just across the English Channel, here in Britain, we have a virtually identical scenario that goes virtually unremarked upon. I refer to the common representation of Jesus, a man originally from the ancient Middle East, whose inhabitants had complexions that were dark or olive-coloured, while the same can be said for their modern forebears.
In Britain, however, this man has for centuries been ‘whited up’ if that’s the correct expression, but it’s not only his complexion that has miraculously changed, because his hair is often depicted as blond and his features are those that call to mind someone from the officer class or aristocracy in Victorian England. This particular likeness is frequently displayed by the political group Britain First on their heavily-subscribed Facebook page, where he’s described as their “Commander-in-Chief”, which seems odd when you consider that Jesus’s primary message was to love one’s neighbour as oneself, whereas Britain First seem to be highly selective in their choice of neighbours and extremely vocal about the reasons for their choices.
Having said all that, I’ve yet to go into a church or chapel in Britain to see a depiction of Jesus that doesn’t show him as a white Anglo-Saxon, so I suppose it’s hardly surprising that there’s a deafening silence from our church leaders over the issue of a dark or olive-skinned man from the East being portrayed as a native of these northern islands and the further use of this highly dubious imagery to bolster the fortunes of a political group that chooses confrontation as a first option.
I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on Black Pete or on the issues surrounding this character, although I like to think I’m on much firmer ground when it comes to details of the historical Jesus, as I wrote a book on the subject in 2009. All the same, I suspect this is all sadly yet another matter where the words of Thomas Paine are directly relevant: “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead….”