Monday 29 December 2014

Dark Peter

In the recent run up to Christmas I borrowed a couple of library books about the history and folklore of the festive period. I've learnt many new things and expanded my knowledge of others. Sometimes I come across something entirely different though and then it snowballs.

My first encounter with Dark Peter was in "The Medieval Christmas" by Sophie Jackson and then lo and behold I came across the same figure in "The Christmas Book" by Patrick Harding. I should point out that I've read a fair few titles over the years about the season but I don't recall this figure at all.

Most of us have heard of St Nicholas and there have been a fair few mentions of his origins so I won't repeat it again but here's a link for anyone who wants further information However, I didn't know he had a Dark Helper or Dark Peter as he was also known. His role was to punish the naughty children with his birch rod whilst St Nicholas rewarded the children who were good. The medieval church were less than starry eyed about this particular figure as he was portrayed so he was given a bit of a "makeover" to make him more acceptable to them shall we say. He was sometimes shown as a black horned figure wearing furs and shackled to the saint and his role was much diminished as he was only allowed to threaten not physically chastise the children.

Relaying this new-to-me info to Mr GBT last week he, it transpired, was already familiar with the figure but had forgotten about him. In the 1970s he attended a school called St Nicolas [yes no 'h' in the name this time] in Abingdon and every year on the 5th of December St Nicholas and 4 Black Peters came into the school. St Nicholas rode in on a pony and his 4 dark helpers carried sacks. Each child was given a satsuma and peanuts. Mentioning that I could find no mention of the tradition on the school's website to his sister yesterday we speculated that it may well no longer exist because nowadays it would probably be deemed to be politically incorrect and very possibly offensive. Mr GBT thinks that the figures may have blacked up and were dressed up as Moorish characters but his memory is vague. He was far more interested in the fruit and nuts as a small boy!  It would appear that they are still a part of the celebrations in the Netherlands on 5th December but are not without controversy.


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