Christmas in black & white

Dec 24, 2003 at 12:00 am

It was more than 100 years ago that The New York Sun made its famous response to an 8-year-old with a pressing question. Her name was Virginia. She’d written to the paper because her little friends told her there was no Santa Claus. And she wanted to know the truth.

Well, here at Metro Times, we note that the Sun missed the chance to tell her that not only is there a Santa Claus, but that a legendary Black Peter also travels the Christmas nights. Just maybe, he’s going to get his day in the snow during this century.

Who is Black Peter?

The arch satirist Ishmael Reed summed him up in a recent e-mail to us, citing the old Dutch versions of the Christmas story:

“Black Peter is the original sidekick of the sort one sees in Eddie Murphy movies. Yet, he seems to have more power, because there’s a mystery about whether he controls Nicholas or Nicholas controls him.

“He is probably of Spanish origin — introduced into the Netherlands with the invasion from Spain, and in the Dutch pageant, the barge which brings Nicholas into the city is accompanied by señoritas.”

Reed notes that the Peter “wears the attire of the Moors,” the North Africans who conquered Spain and who bound Spanish prisoners into slavery.

“In the Dutch celebration, the bag, which is part of the American Santa’s equipment, is used for kidnapping children, and Dutch parents warn their children that if they’re bad, Peter will put them in the bag.

“But Peter does all the dirty work while Santa preens. Peter goes down the chimney and hands out gifts.”

Certainly in America, as the Christmas story has evolved, the notion of such a Black Peter has been whitewashed away. And The New York Sun was hardly going to integrate the holiday in the racist turn-of-that-century climate. A character like Black Peter, however, is hard to permanently erase.

He popped back on the scene about five years ago in Santa & Pete: A Novel of Christmas Past and Present, by Christopher Moore and Pamela Johnson, and out of that came a made-for-TV movie starring James Earl Jones and Hume Cronyn. Yet, the book has never really caught on, and its publisher, Simon & Schuster, has let it slip out of print (though, thanks to the Web, out-of-print books have never been easier to find).

Moore, a New York historian and teacher, and co-writer Johnson tell the story of a little boy who learns the meaning of Christmas and family when his grandfather recites a story of Santa and Pete.

In this made-for-reading-aloud version, the Turkish St. Nicholas is mistaken for a spy while passing through Spain en route to the anxious children of Holland. Pete, the resourceful prison cook, forms his own opinion as Nicholas tells his tale from behind the bars:

“Maybe it was the stardust, but Pete believed him. As they talked through the night, Pete admired St. Nick’s towering spirit. And as Pete talked about navigating by the stars, and feeding three hundred people on a budget of spare change, St. Nick began to appreciate Pete’s power to bring order to chaos.”

Friendship (and apparently a jailbreak) follows, and the two become annual Christmastime traveling buddies. In the Moore-Johnson yarn, the two even travel to New Amsterdam — present-day New York — where they defuse a brewing war between Native Americans, on one hand, and the encroaching Dutch settlement, also the home to “Africans, Jews, French, Italians and Asians … an array of different faces and cultures.” ’Twas a multi-culti Christmas with something to celebrate if ever there was one, the first in the New World.

Reed has also worked with the Black Peter character, though in an entirely different context.

In The Terrible Twos and The Terrible Threes, both published in the 1980s, Reed satirizes the greed-is-good corruption of the Reagan era and the Scrooge-ish future implied. (Some things in the books seem painfully prescient 20 years down the road.)

The novels resist easy summary. The first in the series, Twos, has so many characters so intertwined that we had to keep notes. But to offer a couple of threads: A male-model president presides over a country where a mega-corporation is monopolizing Christmas as never before, designating a former soap opera actor as the only person allowed to play Santa. An administration cabal is preparing to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Nigeria on the sham claim that the African nation is developing an A-bomb; a concurrent attack on American cities is planned to rid the ruling class of deadweight “surps” — surplus people.

Meanwhile, a former street hustler calling himself Black Peter wrests control of a Santa-worshiping cult, and then replaces the corporate Santa with his own Santa zombie. Or at least until his scam collapses.

In Threes, the real Black Peter arrives on the scene, dispensing miracles to challenge the imposter Peter, who’s become something of a folk hero in the intervening years. (America can really fall for a rascal.) With the real Santa playing miraculous one-upmanship with the real Black Peter, the arrival of the mythical goddess Artemis, the continuing machinations of the “nuke Nigeria” crowd, and some aliens who arrive near the end, we won’t try to explain this one either.

But we’ll point out one tale within his tale. The character Bro Lobster tells of a long-ago Yoruban king who annually bestowed gifts to villagers. One day he sent a stranger away empty-handed. You’ll be sorry, the miffed stranger warned. Soon after, villagers began to experience death for the first time, and thus humans became mortals. Ever since, the king has traveled the world and dispensed gifts to all, hoping to find the stranger and end the curse.

It’s this king, Bro Lobster claims, who reappears as Black Peter in Middle Ages Spain “and is covered over with some Christian figure, underneath which is a matriarch of early Turkey associated with tree worship. Then he’s split into white and black along the way.”

Yes, we can say to the Virginias of the world, that, like Santa, Black Peter is a man of real legend and myth — and new invention with each retelling. Whether any version of Peter’s tale of hope and generosity will climb up from obscurity is a question.

Reed, who lives in California, says in his e-mail that Black Peter “has appeared in several Christmas parades, including the one in Oakland. But I think that this figure will probably morph into Kinte Klaus, a figure that is emerging from Kwanzaa.”

On the other hand, maybe all Pete needs is one good flick on the big screen to get his public relations groove on. If James Earl Jones didn’t get him over, maybe Eddie Murphy will some day.


For an interview with Santa & Pete co-author Christopher Moore, check the archives of

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]