Sunday, January 21, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 337: Biomythography - Note 81, Schvartz Pater

Schvartz Pater

For Germany and for December, the weather was good. There was no snow on the ground. My mother had dressed me warmly, in layers. The outer layer included my plaid driver's cap and heavy jacket. 

I squinted away from the sun as we walked. The sky was clear above except for a few, wispy clouds, which meant the day felt too bright. Breezes swept across the street. They came in gusts, always unexpected by me, and they chilled my ears and face. However, my mother kept my hand in hers. I constantly felt her warmth. Once or twice, she stopped to visit shops along the street. When she did, I took shelter from the wind behind her legs.

"Home!" I begged as my mother engaged in a long conversation with another woman from the American military base. I pulled on her jacket sleeve. "Please home!"

"I don't know where your father is," my mother sighed. "He should have met us here."

"Home, please!"

After I continued pleading for ten minutes or so, she nodded. She said goodbye to her acquaintance. We walked forty meters and turned a corner onto our street, only a few blocks from our home. There, we wandered into an unexpected throng of people. They lined the sidewalks on either side of the road. We heard noises from pedestrians striding up the middle of the asphalt. To my puzzlement, some of the people wore costumes, rough leather on the men, green dresses on the women. A few of the women sparkled.

In my toddler range of experience, no one walked in the middle of the streets in Bitburg. No one wore outlandish clothes. Adults would shout if you tried either of those things. I stared at the approaching parade, fascinated.

The rough-looking men passed through. A pair of wooden carts followed them, pushed by boys and girls, then the women who sparkled. A man in a blue and white robe marched toward us. Some of the Germans in the crowd muttered a phrase I knew, 'Heiliger Nikolaus.' Someone else said, 'Sinter Klaus.' I started bouncing on my toes. I wasn't sure about Nikolaus but I knew Sinter Klaus. He gave out gifts.

"Oh, it's Saint Nicholas," my mother said.

As the figures grew closer, I noticed how the saint looked thin and stern. He thumped along with a tall, golden scepter. Once or twice, he stopped to threaten us by waving it around. He seemed ready to bash anyone who didn't act pious enough.

"He’s scary," I whispered.

"He's fine. He's good," my mother assured me. "He's not going to hurt you."

I remembered my father telling me that Saint Nicholas was holy and benevolent. One of his partners, though, was the dangerous one, Schvartz Pater.

Every town in Germany and, in fact, every municipality in Europe had a different tradition for Saint Nicholas. I didn't know the differences then. Even now, the town traditions are changing slightly every year. I don't think anyone can really know all the differences in all the places in Europe. As a toddler I had a basic level of awareness from my parents. I knew Bitburg had a folklore about Schvartz Pater (here, I am spelling it the way I heard it as a toddler). I may be confused in my fragmented memory. I was seeing the pageant as a small group of volunteers in a relatively small town played it out in the middle of the 1960s. 

Behind and to the right of Saint Nikolaus strode the bad guy, Schvartz Pater. Pater was thin and moved in an exaggerated way. His legs took him on a course that weaved from side to side, not the straight path that Nikolaus chose. He wore a grey jacket, shabby trousers, and a bag thrown over his shoulder. In his off-hand he carried a thin bundle of sticks. He had smudged his face lightly with charcoal but he had neglected to smudge his hands.

Even to my three-year-old eyes, Schvartz Pater was a chimney sweep. In this particular parade, he had dressed very much like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a movie I had recently seen on German television. I didn't understand a lot of the movie but I loved the Dick Van Dyke character. The figure of Schvartz Pater was meant to scare children but the local actor who played him hammed it up so much that he smiled, enjoying himself. He seemed ready to burst out into a dance with penguins. I didn't find him anywhere near as threatening as Heiliger Nikolaus.

"Oh, there you are, Ann." Apparently, my father had arrived. He didn't smell as much like cigar or pipe smoke as he usually did, at least not on a windy day in the outdoors. I hadn't noticed him approaching. Although I must have glanced at him, the sight of my father could not compete with the parade. I don't remember how he looked. When I noticed Heiliger Nikolaus looming close, though, I backed up.

My parents chuckled. So did a few other adults nearby.

"Be careful," my father warned. "If you're bad, Schvartz Pater will put you in his sack."

Many of the Germans nearby nodded. They understood English well enough to hear the warning. They approved.

My father had explained it several times before. If parents felt a child of theirs wasn't obeying instructions and needed a good scare, they could pay Schvartz Pater to pretend to kidnap him. The parents would act helpless, of course, as if under a magical spell from Heiliger Nikolaus. Schvartz Pater would put the child in his sack. Then he would carry him for a while until the child cried. Pater and Nikolaus, maybe as a team, would make the child agree to be good and listen to his parents. Nikolaus would order Pater to release the boy (well, it was almost always a boy) on the condition that he improve himself and listen to his long-suffering parents. 

The fact that my parents had explained this as I was reading (or, when younger, simply looking at) books of German fairy tales, made the sight of Schvartz Pater seem almost friendly. Heiliger Nikolaus strode by and he paused to berate someone for not being holy enough. His presence intimidated me but, fortunately, he kept moving. Behind him, Pater tapped someone with his bundle of sticks - or merely tried, as the boy dodged - and he chastised some other youngster. When he passed me, though, he crouched and gave me a big smile, just for an instant, then he rose and marched onward.

I didn't want the parade to leave. Most especially, I didn't want to let the chimney sweep Schvartz Pater escape my sight. But I was surrounded by adults. They loomed. They seemed to exist in a huge, frightening world of walking in the street, shouting, and waving. It was all too much. I stood frozen, gaping at the characters as they left. If they had circled around the block, I could have gawked at the parade all day.


Zwarte Peter

The above is my dim memory of an experience with a character I remember hearing as Schvartz Pater. The scene had to be from Bitburg or Hamburg. Those cities were the only two in Germany with army bases where my parents taught after I was born.

Zwarte Peter, though, is a character I've read about as an adult. That makes him different. Do I need to have an opinion on customs in another land where Zwarte Peter is a black man, a freed slave who serves Heiliger Nikolaus? Not necessarily. I'm almost certainly under-informed. 

I'm aware of the history enough to know Zwarte Peter was a character created out of good intent. An abolitionist wrote him into the Christmas Pageant stories to show that black men could be good, too. But he seems like a bit of an afterthought in most of the European celebrations, a token, and when he plays the role that Schvartz Pater or Krampus plays in other towns, well, it's confusing to outsiders, I'm sure. The only dark-skinned character is an enforcer for Saint Nicholas and kidnaps children? Great. You can see how any of the few dark-skinned immigrants to Germany might be bothered to see Peter as the only example of an African visible in the parade.

You would think most German townsfolk would shrug and say, oh well, it's time to let this part if the story drop out. But no, once something is established for a generation, it's loved by anyone who grew up with it. People like traditions. They like obedience in children, too, and Zwarte Peter helps to reinforce it.

One obvious solution to the European image problem with Zwarte Peter, if the various towns regard it as a problem at all, would be to include a number of other African or Moorish characters in the celebration stories. That way, Zwarte Peter would not be such an obvious token. It wouldn't play badly to have him an enforcer, even, if other characters who looked somewhat like him played the parts of (for example) Reindeer Herder or Spring Approaching. They wouldn't have to push out established characters. Add more in.

It's worth pointing out that Saint Nicholas himself grew up in what is now Turkey. He was lean and pious, by most accounts, but surely it's reasonable to portray him as fairly dark skinned, too. 

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