The Zwarte Piets, or chimney sweeps | Kitsap Week

Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series by local writer Ron Corcoran.


All of the new clothing (the baggy tunic and the cape) and paraphernalia (the tall hat and the walking stick) did, however, become a detriment to Sinterklaas’s “rooftop mobility” — particularly as he began to age.

Therefore, it’s no wonder that the Dutch modified and improved upon the generous man’s evening choreography.

As the years went by, the purpose of Sinterklaas’s annual late-night visits began to morph toward a gift-giving exclusively for children. All children.

Plus, with the steady population growth in the cities, it was reasoned that the aging Sinterklaas would be needing help. So, as the legend continued to be expanded, Sinterklaas enlisted the services of three young boys to assist him in his    annual gifting adventures.

These boys, who were orphans, became very popular amongst the Dutch citizenry and were well-loved — because of their very dark skin. Some historians refer to the boys as being Moroccan.

Whatever their actual roots, it is well-documented that these boys became gainfully employed as chimneysweeps ... when, of course, they weren’t engaged in gift distribution on behalf of Sinterklaas.

(Author’s note: A chimneysweep’s job is to clean the hazardous buildup of soot from the inside of house chimneys. This cleaning must be done from the very tops of the chimneys all the way to the bottom. And the from-top-to-bottom-of-a-chimney can be a long distance in a three-story building. Check the Yellow Pages for your nearest chimneysweep.)

All three of Sinterklaas’s boys were known as Zwarte Piets, or Black Petes. Their origin and/or their being chimneysweeps may have had the most to do with their naming.

Soon the legend had Sinterklaas riding a white horse during his appointed rounds on the evening the gifts were being distributed. And on his white horse, Sinterklaas was said to carry with him a large bag full of gifts as well as an unabridged book containing lists of  “Who has been naughty?” and “Who has been nice?”

Is any of this ringing a bell?

No, there was no sleigh.  And, no, there were no reindeer. Those would come later.

Eventually, the 5th of December of each year became known as “de Pakjesavond” — or the Evening of the Presents. And in response to the promise of a visit from Sinterklaas and with visions of gifts and sugarplums dancing in their heads, children all over the Dutch countryside for hundreds of years have carefully placed their shoes in front of the fireplaces in their homes. And that is because their shoes were to be the gift receptacles.

These children had to be very careful that they didn’t leave their shoes too close to the fire, because — as you know — traditionally, shoes of The Netherlands are made of wood.

Once the shoes were strategically positioned in their pre-designated locations (near the fireplace which led to the chimney), the children would happily sing a couple of traditional songs to Sinterklaas.

(Author’s note: Grandma Got “Runned Over” By A Reindeer has never been one of the traditional Winter Festival songs in The Netherlands.)

— Next week: Pepernoten, Speculaas, and Kruidnoten …

Read part one here.

Read part two here.

For more stories by the author, go to



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