Local blogger El Serracho (or The Serrach) finds himself in the Netherlands at the moment, where he reports that it's Christmas season. El is a Global Internet Manager of Production (or GIMP), a job that has sent him to the Netherlands at least 15 times. Those wacky Dutch are so high they give out gifts at the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6, see. Right now it's high Yuletide over there–Christmas Day is more of a quiet family holiday sans gift-giving.
Our man in Amsterdam (or near it anyway) has been seeing lots of pictures of people in black-face adorning the windows of storefronts. A throwback to Jim Crow humor? Nah, it's just Black Peter.
Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, functions as the Netherlander's equivalent of Santa's bad-ass black manservant. Think Jerome to The Time's Morris Day. His origins are unclear: in the Dutch tradition Old Saint Nick has similarities to the Norse god Odin, thus Black Peter might be a reference to Odin's black ravens Hugin and Munin; in the middle-ages (also known as the dark ages' second adolescence) Zwarte Piet was a name for the Devil, whom St. Nick is said to have defeated then enslaved; he could be inspired by Moorish invaders of southern Europe; or there's the PC version, which depicts Piet as a former slave now willfully in the employ of Saint Nick, his liberator. Piet first appeared in 1845 in Dutch author Jan Schenkman's Saint Nicholas and his Servant, although he is depicted as Indian; he does not become black until the book's 1850 edition.
Zwarte Piet. Black Peter. Swarthy Pete. Whatever you call him and wherever he came from, this man is the original bad motherfucker–Samuel Jackson be damned. If you're a good little Dutch kid, then he helps Santa deliver your well-deserved gifts. But if you're a naughty kid, then he fucks you up good and proper. In the bad old days he would scoop you up into a burlap sack, kidnap you and take you to Spain. That's right–SPAIN. Hence the possible Moorish connection. Nowadays he just beats you with a whip or scourge (or, in France, a martinet – think a cat o' nine tails)
As El Serracho says, “This is the enlightened Europe.”
Interesting Side Note: Speaking of naughty kids, the English use for martinet does not refer to a weapon but a person, a motivator like Tom Delay (formerly the Majority Whip in Congress). Ponder this excerpt from Wikipedia's martinet entry while you imagine naughty Republicans being thrown into sacks by black men and kidnapped to, say, France.
In an extended sense, a martinet is a person for whom rules and etiquette are paramount: martinets often use etiquette and other rules as an excuse to trump ethics, to the point that etiquette loses its ethical ground. Pettiness and small points of order are permitted to justify duckspeaking and mask deep groupthink.