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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 16:31 GMT
Europe diary: Poland in a huff
1 December 2005

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell discusses Poland's view of the UK's EU budget proposals, a fly-on-the-wall documentary in which he is the fly, and Belgium's Black Peter.

The diary is published every Thursday.


More trouble with the transport police, this time in Poland, where a cop called Starsky corners us and demands to know what we're doing filming on the metro. Its all right, we've got full permission, so I don't get a chance to see if his mate, lurking in the background, has a badge reading "Hutch". For the rest of the day I look around hopefully for Cagney and Lacey.

Robin Hood
Robin Hood stole from the rich, the UK has other plans
We're in Warsaw to see the sort of projects that the EU budget funds: like expanding the 16-station underground system. Some could be at risk if the UK gets its way. In what's being called in Brussels Tony Blair's reverse Robin Hood strategy, he's suggesting the EU budget could be made smaller by spending 10% less on such projects in the new countries. Poland is in a bit of a huff about this attempt by a supposed ally to save the richest countries some money at the expense of the poorest.


I now feel a lot more sympathy for people those people who end up looking foolish in those fly-on-the-wall documentaries. For the last three months a couple of producers from BBC4 have been following me around filming me doing my job, for a documentary to be broadcast on Wednesday 7 December at 2105. "My Euro Blog", as it is called, features extracts from this diary and mixes news reports with behind-the-scenes stuff.

The most surreal moment was when I was filmed in my office talking to the director of the documentary about filming for the documentary that afternoon. Post modern or what? The premise of the documentary is that the European Union is at a crossroads, politically, economically and culturally. As I struggle to write the conclusion, I feel a bit like Zhou Enlai when asked what he thought of the French Revolution: "It's too early to say".


Friedrich Engels and Daniel Hannan
History in the making? Hannan (right) and a journalist (far left)
"Of course, the seeds of the way Europe eventually developed were planted at the Congress of Brussels, 2005." That at any rate is what the conservative MEP Daniel Hannan hopes future historians will write. He's asked around 70 people from 28 countries to a Congress in the European Parliament. He wants it to set up a new organisation aimed at establishing a sort of "organised, respectable" opposition to the continuation of "ever closer union" and to propose alternatives.

I hope it is more interesting than the Congress of Brussels, held in 1847, where one journalist recorded: "Never did I hear such dull, tedious, trivial stuff, brought forward with such a degree of self-complacency." As the subject was free trade, perhaps the journalist, one Friedrich Engels, was a bit biased.


Here in Belgium, Santa Claus looks more like the original saint, who was a Turkish bishop, than a roly poly Father Christmas. He wears a red mitre and carries a golden crook. But there's a surprise for those who think Brussels is the home of political correctness. His helper, as in much of continental Europe, is "Black Peter". At the event I attended he was represented by a heavily blacked-up white man in a curly black wig and purple velvet doublet, distributing sweets to the children. I can't see that being allowed in Britain or the States, although I have yet to find out if anyone here finds it offensive. But how did "Black Peter" come into the story? Any amateur folklorists out there ?

Please use the form below to send in your comments on issues raised in the diary:

In Romania (parts of it at least), St Nicholas (on 6th Dec.) goes out in the street and distributes hot onion soup to the people. I've searched (fairly desperately)everywhere for the specific recipe but to no avail. Anyone know it?
Bruce, Quebec

As a UK student, living in the Netherlands for the year, the tradition of "Zwarte Piet" came as something of a surprise. But then, the general mentality of many Dutch made a similar impact. In a country where immigration is increasingly frowned upon (most especially in respect to the large Turkish minority) there is something to be said for celebrating a Turkish man from centuries long gone, despite the widespread ignorance of his origins. Is it too much to hope that a similar sense of cultural appreciation could be reflected in the wider realms of Dutch mentality?
Jessica Magson , Leiden, Netherlands

Another aspect of the Belgian Sinterklaas tradition is singing special Sinterklaas songs by the fireplace (so the Saint will hear them as he rides by over the rooftops) asking him to stop and leave some gifts, which traditionally include marzipan and chocolate, particularly the initial letters of a person's name in chocolate. Sometimes the Saint also writes little verses about the recipient in soot - my husband used to have fun taking a burned stick from the fireplace to write little notes to our children.
Sandra, Belgian by marriage, NY USA

On political correctness, I know that in Surinam, the former Dutch colony in South America, they still celebrate Sinterklaas with Black men playing the saint's role. So although in the Netherlands it's a black/white thing, that's by no means a hard and fast rule. Anyway, as said, Sint is a stodgy old Roman Catholic man in a dress, whereas Piet is always the way cooler guy in the neon tights with the sense of humour. Who would you rather be?
WittePiet, Delft, Ntherlands

This is to clarify Wittepiet's assumption: Surinam (former Dutch colony) does not celebrate this racist holiday anymore. It was cancelled as soon as the Dutch left Suriname (1975). Why can't the people in the lowlands just to try to move on?
Vinod Ramgolam, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Sinterklaas and Black peter originates from an old viking holiday. on this day Odin would come down on a white horse and he would take al the dead back with him. these dead would be black for some reason. When cristianity reached the low-lands x-mas was mixed with this holiday creating Sinterklaas
stefan, amsterdam, the netherlands

Actually Santa here and in the Netherlands is Saint Nicolas. I'm black but never felt offended by the tradition of "zwarte Piet" or Black Pete, Saint-Nicolas's helper. They come on December 6th for the good children. Children are told he comes on a white horse. But first he takes a steaming boot from Spain to Belgium (or NL). Pete walks along a donkey that carries all the gifts. The bishop of Myra (Asia) at around 340 and a freed slave that helped him are supposedly at the start of this legend.
Kristof, Brussels

Well, whatever it is, the Spanish know lttle about St Nicholas. Santa Claus is Papa Noel and he´s a new invention. The tradition in Spain is that the Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos) visit on the eve or morning of 6 January, bringing a gift for children who have been good and a lump of coal for those who have been naughty. It is a community ceremony, often people congregate in front of the town hall (Ayuntamiento) where sweets, bonbons etc are tossed by the mayor, his /her aides and sometimes the ´Los Tres Magos´. A local church or hall is open for the gift giving. The childrens names (on the gifts previously provided by their families) are called out and you often see toddlers walking down the aisle being helped up some stairs and returning clutching boxes almost bigger than themselves. It´s an absolute joy to see the expressions on their faces wondering whether they have a gift or a lump of coal. The ceremony is often preceded by a cavalcade (for example the three kings headi! ng a candlelit procession coming down a mountain road) and there are a variety of local versions. December 6 is a religious fiesta and not for gift giving. There is a liitle conflict about Christmas (Dec 25)in the past simply a holy day, and some families will buy gifts for both events really because of commercial pressure. Many Spanish parents I speak to would prefer to retain Los Tres Magos (two fiestas in a short space of time is hard on the pocket).
Tony Webb, Gandia, Spain

I'm really sorry for bothering you but if we want to discuss an issue related to racism there are some topics matching more perfectly than the story of Santa's black helper. This is a typical attitude to be found in rich industrial nations. Maybe we all should take a glance at REAL racism a problem you can find all over the world: The failed integration in France, the cutting down of social projects in the US - having effects on the vast majority of blacks, the tension between Turkish and Kurdish and so on and so on. As a Black it is not only my opinion that Santa's helper may be as black as people want him to I, moreover, regard this topic as absolutely dispensable.
Jean, Rostock, Germany

Santa Claus delivers gifts from his reindeer-drawn sled, but in Belgium and Holland, Saint Nicholas ('Sinterklaas') travels the roofs on a white horse with his companion Black Peter ('Zwarte Piet'), pushing gifts through chimneys. 'Zwarte Piet' is black, not because he is from Africa, but because originally he was a chimneysweep. To confuse matters, children in Holland, and possibly Belgium as well, now believe Sinterklaas is not from Turkey but from Spain, that being another exotic country somewhere to the south, most have forgotten about the chimneysweep bit and politically correct people are trying to convince everybody that chimneysweeps regularly encounter red, yellow, green or blue soot on their excursions up and down chimneys. Leading to Red Peter, Yellow Peter, Green Peter. Or Blue Peter. Anything but Black.
Arjen de Bruine, Nieuw Vennep, the Netherlands

I thought Black Peter sorted out the good children from the bad and those that were bad had all their presis turned to coal! - thus 'Black' Peter was clearly a coal miner!!!
Mark White, Sevenoaks

Sinterklaas arrived in the low countries via Spain. Spain has cultural ties with Afrika. Black Afrikans are the story tellers and singers of the world. In Spain, a father telling stories to his children, puts black on his face to signal it is the truth for children
Karel Hart, Nijmegen, Netherlands

Black Peter is not black in the African sense of the word. He is traditionally covered in soot. This is the chimney link we find back in the Father Christmas coming down the chimney. Also "Zwarte Piet" or "Pere Fouettard" comes for the naughty children. In these days of political correctness, he is more frequently seen handing out sweets than carrying the whip he should have.
Peter Leeson, Milton Keynes, UK

Black Peter is all about political correctness. As remarked he is "blacked up", this is from going through chimneys to bring up the presents. He is not wearing the clothes from a 17th century Spanish servant but from a 16th century Spanish soldier (Leuven lost more than half of its population in those days). And if he ever was related to the devil taking bad children away in his bag, nowadays he is seen "distributing sweets to the children".
Fontaine, Leuven, Belgium

Hmmm! Father Christmas and Black Pete.... One apparently giving out trinkets, while the other one beats the poor. All based on diverse mythology but with a seed of history in there somewhere. Hasn't anyone made the connection? It's Tony giving out the promises of good fortune, while Gordon works us to the grave for a valueless pension!
AlanC, Rochester England

Black Peter, comes with St. Nicholas, mostly in the Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Flanders region of Belgium; a Moor from Africa. Zwarte Piet or Black Peter was established in the Netherlands as the Sinterklaas helper in the 1845 book Sinterklaas en Zijn Knecht. He rides over the rooftops with Sinterklaas, listens down chimneys to check children's behavior, and delivers gifts. Even though some ask if he is an anachronism in today's world, the Piets are enormously popular; the Dutch see them as more fun-loving and mischievous than the more stately bishop. Besides, the Saint asks children questions and gives fruit while it is the Piets who hand out treats and candy.
Andrew Whiting, Paris, France

In Medieval times, the Dutch in particular, referred to the Devil as "Black Pete". Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) supposedly kept the Devil in chains and there is the classic 'Good and Evil' struggle. Saint Nicholas was of course extremely good to children whereas 'Black Pete' was Mr Nasty. As the tradition of giving presents to children evolved, 'Black Pete' became involved in the decision making process of whether children had been Good or Bad, and in most European cultures he survives today as part of the moral education of children. However, at what point the Devil became literally 'Black Pete' is open to question, as 'black' is obviously intended to refer to his deeds, rather than his colour. I'm surprised people don't find it offensive as it is a little disturbing to people from UK/US, but here it is generally accepted as part of the seasons traditions and not intended as an offence to anyone.
Dan , Brussels

Black Peter is a moor, he is Santa Claus' helper. And over here i don't think anyone finds it offensive, maybe foreigners. As the story was told to me, Santa Claus was a Saint from Spain who brought, together with his helpers, presents to the children around this time a year. The role of Peter is to hand the presents over to the children after they have sat on Santa's lap and after Santa has verified in his book if the child had been good during the last year. To me they always seemed more friends to Santa than slaves. And never has the story been thought of as a racial issue. Although i could understand why. To me Peter always was the man you should watch out for, because of the pranks he could pull out with you if you had been a bad child. Or the fact that he might put you in Santa's big red present bag and take you with him to spain for some discpline. And yes it looks quite ridiculous to see a white man with shoe polish on his face, i always thought they did that becaus! e there weren't any moors around as this story finds his origin in the Medieval times and not to ridicule black people.
stefan, zaventem, belgium

As far I as I understood it, Santa Claus's US/ UK guise is a direct result of the 1920's advertising campaigns of a certain well-known (and highly unscrupulous) Cola manufacturer. The chimney reference in the myth of Saint Nicholas is to do with the three bags of gold he supposedly gave to the three daughters of a poor man who could not afford their dowries. The third gift was deposited through the chimney in an (obviously unsuccessful) effort to preserve Saint Nicholas' identity. Incidentally he is also the patron saint of pawn brokers - hence the traditional sign for pawn brokers being three round golden balls (representing the three sacks of gold). As for black people taking offence at the numerous Gollywog representations of Zwarte Piet that appear all over Belgium, I have not noticed any particular evidence of this. However, I have also not noticed too much resentment being shown by most people of non-white origin when they are confronted by staggering rudeness from many members of the police force and the train staff - to mention but two. As a fellow train passenger informed me this morning, a black passenger on the train can expect a very different service from a white one. This is, apparently "just the way things are".
SP, Londoner living in Belgium

I lived in Holland in the lates 80's. "Zwarte Piet" is so-named (I think) beccause St Nikolas came from Morrocco (on a white horse) and Zwarte Piet was his helper. There would be a parade as 'Sint' and Zwarte Piet (usually many of them) arrived in the town, giving sweets to the children.
Paul Titcomb, Reading, UK

Black Peter is my hero !! I think the so called political correctness that Mark Mardell is expecting in Belgium (Or Holland)is based on his own ethnocentricity (Judging other cultures through your own biased view) As far as I am concerned 'Black Peter' has nothing to with politicall correctness. In the same way that TV productions of 'Spitting Image' or 'Monthy Python' have nothing to do with it. Cultural values are learned and cultivated and when someone regards something as offensive he could be regarded as narrow-minded. As he simply projects his 'petit esprit' (small mindedness) on others. The catholic low-countries always had a tradition to mock the so called established values. Watch the carnaval parade in 'Aalst' 7 weeks before easter and you will see what satire and humour lives among the folk to mock the system and their leaders. There is nothing political incorrect about that, to suggest otherwise is hypocritical and will lead to a neurotic mass.
Frank de Vries, Edegem Belgium

In Russia it's said that black Peter accompanies Santa Claus. Where Santa is plump and rosy and jolly, Petter is tall, gaunt, sallow and throughly unpleasnt. He rides with Santa to beat and whip the children who are bad.
David, London, England

The historical roots of "Black Peter" are somewhat confused. One theory states that he was an Italian chimneysweep (hence the black face and the presents-down-chimneys aspects), another states that he is of Moorish descent, travelling with Sinterklaas from Spain. Basically, nobody I've spoken to has any real idea. On the other hand, it is deeply rooted tradition, and I personally hope that the PC thugs will never squash this quaint inoffensive idiosyncracy of the festival. :)
Black Pete, England

About the St Nicholas stories etc.: In Switzerland too the 6th Dec. is a special day, complete with "Samichlaus" (St. Nicholas) and helper, "Schmutzli" (a diminutive form of Schmutz, dirty, muddy...); but Christmas Eve is the main time. As for Father Christmas: perhaps your British readers would like to regain their own culture and recall that Father Christmas is ours, not Coca Cola's Santa Claus, and that Father Christmas goes back an awfully long and dubious way, possible pre-christian. Stop equating UK and USA cultures. They differ markedly, or has UK also abolished Christmas in favour of "Happy Holidays" too?.
Jeremy, Zurich, Switzerland

Did you know that it was Dutch Immigrants who brought the tradition of Santa Claus to the rest of the world? That's right! It all started waaaay back in the 4th Century when a Bishop in Turkey named St. Nicholas became widely known for his good deed with poor children in Europe. His feast day became known as the Celebration of Sinterklaas and was held on December 6. St. Nicholas is also known as the patron saint of Amsterdam. Many different versions of the story of Saint Nicholas are told but there are some common characters in each one. First is Saint Nick's companion Zwarte Piet. Some believe that Zwarte Piet was a black slave. This is not the case. Zwarte Piet is said to be a Turkish orph an that traveled as St. Nicholas' helper. His darker Turkish features must have seemed black to thefairer 4th Century Dutch. The second common character is Schimmel, St. Nicholas' fine white horse. St. Nicholas is pictured in medieval and renaissance paintings as a tall, dignified man dressed in red vestments carrying a Bishop's golden crook. Zwarte Piet is depicted in garish Turkish garb with bright red lips and a gold earring. The legend describes St. Nicholas and Zwarte Piet traveling from their home in Spain across Europe helping the poor and bring food to children. Through the ages, the story of St. Nicholas astride his white horse with this helper Zwarte Piet grew into a tradition to celebrate the feast day on December 6th. St. Nicholas travels to Holland on a steam ship from Spain. He would leave in mid November and arrive on December 5th. Just in time to place small gifts and treats like pepernoten, chocolate initials, marzipan figures and fruit.In the past, St. Nicholas carried a Birch switch used to punish children who were naughty and Zwarte Piet was said to put bad children in his sack or would leave them a lump of coal in their shoes instead of treats. Today, St. Nicholas is portrayed as a more gentle figure and Zwarte Piet is a jokester.
Greg Byshenk, Leiden, Netherlands

I lived in holland for two years and learnt of the stories of zwarte Pete(Black Peter) The story goes sinta claus traveled to spain where he rescued the slaves who became his servants they were all like black Pete and each year they deliver sweets to you in December if you leave your shoes by the fire, a great tradition in my humble opinion.
Simon Welton, Canada

Saint Nicolas bought once the freedom of a Ethiopian slave his name was Piter. And he was so thank full that he stayed with Saint Nicholas to help him. The clothing he wore was a Spanish outfit, that was fashion in that time . And in the Netherlands where a lot of chimney cleaners and when they did their job they where dirty black from the coal. They had a big sack to catch the bits what fell out of the chimney when they whipped it. That¿s where the sack is coming in the story.
Organic, Bradford West Yorkshire

As I remember you set your shoe by the fireplace at night on the 4th of December and the presents appear in the morning of the 5th. Don't forget to leave carrot and some sugar cubes for the horse the Sint rides. Its a tradition, lets not get overly sensitive, no black person I know ever did about this.
Serge, Dutch Expat in London

Didn't "Black Peter" get sent to Brussels by "Saint Tony"?
Jamie, Wendover, UK

In Germany, Dec. 6 is also a key day in the run up to Christmas, it is called simply Nikolaus. This is when St. Nikolaus puts sweets in children's shoes in the night. He is sometimes accompanied (at school parties for example) by Knecht Ruprecht (a Knecht was a servant, unlike Black Pete who was an assistant). He, too originally carried a switch to beat bad children. The St. Nikolaus figure reads a list of good and bad deeds from a big book for each child before giving them a present. The switch has tacitly disappeared! Interestingly enough, the German St. Nikolaus takes the shape of our jovial Father Christmas rather than the Turkish Bishop. All good fun, though. Kids love it, even the non-Christians at school parties in Germany join in whole heartedly, as do their parents.
Alan Halls, alan.halls@prestran.de

A popular story is that Saint Nicolas released an Ethiopian slave called Piter, and to show his gratitude Piter served Nicolas the rest of his live. It is also said that Piter was a eunuch. Another explanation is that in France, where Saint Nicolas day was first held, Saint Nicolas had to fight a group of black-painted devils. Black-painted devils as Herne, the black horned devil from German religion. A third story, from 17th century Holland, is that Black Peter was modelled upon More servants from Spain (Spain was ruling Holland at that time). Since the WWII the view on Black Peter has gradually changed from a boogieman that takes children back with him (to Spain, where Saint Nicolas lives) to a children's friend who brings the presents from rooftop to rooftop.
Bart, Amsterdam - Netherlands

Can't tell you about the origins of Black Pete, or Schwartz Pete as my Dutch au pairs used to call him when I was a kid. About this time in the month we would put clogs outside the front door (of our house in uncontinental Maidenhead in Berks) and wait for St Nick and Schwartz Pete to turn up, bringing walnuts and satsumas. I still don't know who they were (not the au pair, who would be standing next to me).
Andy Furley, Sheffield UK

Although the Belgian and Dutch St. Nicholas did indeed come from Turkey, and has nothing to do with Christmas, in folklore he came from Spain, and he is therefore accompanied by a "moor" servant, Black Peter. Any Belgian could have told you that. Understandably, lots of people do find it offensive, though, that Peter is black, especially non-whites of course. So now we have White Peters to, in the Netherlands at least. We're still waiting for a black St. Nicholas.
Roel Hakemulder, Colombo, Sri Lanka

The Santa Claus Mark Mardell refers to is known as St. Nicholas. It is not clear how it came about, according to the Dutch version, that St. Nicholas sets off from Spain every year. One explanation is that this relates to the fact that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of seafarers. In the 17th century, Holland was a great maritime country. It is possible that contact with Spanish seafarers led to this custom. This is also a possible explanation of St. Nicholas being aided by Black Peter ['Zwarte Piet' in NL; aka 'Knecht Ruprecht' or 'Krampus' in DE and AT]; this is said to be related to the presence of Moors in Spain. Another, more widely accepted, explanation is that Peter is black, is the fact that he shimmies up and down chimneys doling out gifts (setting stockings is part of the game) and that he doesn't to wash up afterwards. The Saint's legendary gifts and 'dowries' to poor girls has led to the tradition of giving small gifts to children on the eve of his date of death, the 5th of December, which is now celebrated as St. Nicholas's Day. A visit by the Saint and his helper(s) is for the purpose of showing the triumph of good over evil (or rather: t! he naughty): naughty children are admonished, and the good ones are rewarded. Arguably, the worst a child can experience is being taken away in Black Peter's sack, the same sack from which he doles out sweets and gifts. A lesser 'punishment' is getting a caning. Of course, there are but few naughty children around...
Bipin Taneja, Delft, The Netherlands

I'm a Belgian expat living in the States and I have to say that I find the tradition of "Black Peter" incredibly offensive. He is supposed to round up all the "bad" kids and put them in his bag. I have always felt that the figure of "Black Peter" represents an incredibly racist attitude toward people who are different. There seems to be a subliminal tolerance for such representations even today. This seems to be a very pertinent problem in Europe currently, keeping the race riots and Turkey's accession talks in mind.
Lieven Meert, Fairfax, USA

This version of "Sinterklaas" is typically low-lands, Netherlands and Belgium. There is some debate on why "Zwarte Piet" (black peter) is black. The story is that Sinterklaas lives in Spain when he's not celebrating his birthday in the low-lands. In some stories/songs he has Moorish helpers, and they are black. In other stories/songs they are black because they have to travel through the chimneys to get to the shoes that children(every child one shoe, naturally, Believe me I tried placing two, I didn't get any presents and "Sinterklaas" (my parents) actually gave me an admonishing letter instead) place at the fireplace so he can put presents in them. It should be made clear that there is no connection to slavery at least Black Peter is not a slave. Black Moors are of course descendant of slaves. The last couple of years there is some debate on whether or not it is offensive. Some people resolve the issue by colouring "Peter" yellow, red or whatever colour. Some don't consider it an issue and leave him black.
F van den Tweel, Leiden, Netherlands

One of the many stories surrounding the origin of "Black Peter", or Zwarte Piet in Dutch, is that Saint Nicholas bought the freedom of a Moorish slave, who out of eternal gratitude served the Bishop for the rest of his life as his personal assistant. Other more fanciful stories include Piet being covered in soot from delivering gifts through chimneys. The most likely reason, however, are medieval drawings of St. Nicholas showing him driving out the devil, which was symbolically shown as a black faced person. Here the black merely represents evil and not skin colour at all. The association shown in these drawings have remained ever since.
Lawrence Sims, Dordrecht, The Netherlands

"Black Peter" or Zwarte Pete as he is known locally is supposed to be a slave who was freed by De Sint (The Saint). So grateful was he that he continued to work for The Saint out of loyalty or so the story goes. Maybe this is some sort of national guilt from Belgium¿s colonial days in the Congo, who knows. The day for celebrating the Saint is not 24th or 25th of December but the 6th. Most children here especially the expats have two Christmas's, the local one on the 6th and the Anglicized on the 25th.
Paul Hartness, Expat, Antwerp, Belgium

In the Netherlands, the story of Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) says that he arrives from Spain rather than the North Pole. Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), according to the tradition, is his Moorish helper. Why Santa Claus chose Spain rather than the North Pole as his residence, appart from the much nicer weather, is not clear. It may be a legacy of the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries.
Jan Fidrmuc, London, UK

There's a number of explanations for "Zwarte Piet" (Black Peter). Some say he's a chimney sweep, others say he's from Moorish descent (something which would nicely tie in with the Saint's current homecountry of Spain instrad of the original Turkey). a couple of weeks ago I heard another nice explanation. both Saint Nicolas and Black Peter are an allegory for God and the Devil who are deviding the souls between them at the Endtimes. A sort of general repetition for all the illiterates and young (back in the time when barely anyone could read). Over time I guess all of those explanations have merged. And Santa Claus comes here too, on the day everyone celebrates Sol Invictus (not that many remember how Christmas came to be on the 24th/25th though)
Bernard, Nieuwpoort, Belgium

Zwarte Piets are most definitely supposed to be negros. In addition to the curly hair and blacked-up face, they are also depicted with large lips. The soot story was invented to temper the racial aspect. What´s even more disturbing is that they are subservient a white man on a horse. The whole spectacle makes The Black and White Minstrel Show look positively tame by comparison.
Gareth Budden, Dublin, Ireland

This Black Pete character is new to me. Santa's helpers have always been the elves, which seem decidingly nicer than a slave, chimneysweep, etc. that beats the bad children. Isn't getting coal for christmas bad enough? As for where Santa Claus lives, well thats obvious, the north pole.
Patrick Ciappara, Canada

The original Santa Claus was indeed a christian bishop who lived in what is present day Turkey, but it was long before the Turks descended to that part of the world, which at that time was known as the Byzantine Empire. His name was Basil and he spent his family fortune on the care of the poor, the elderly and the children.
Margarita P.K., London, England

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are equally fun for kids. There is really no offense intended so don't spoil this for the little ones by turning it into a pc debate! Growing up, I would leave a carrot for the horse, a cookie for Sinterklaas and a nice strong beer for Zwarte Piet. My father always promised he would hand it to Zwarte Piet personally.
Tineke, Leuven, Belgium

Russia never had a tradition of Black Pete. The folk substitution of Santa Claus - Grandfather Frost, was originaly a figure that combined characteristics of both Santa Claus and Black Pete. However nowdays GF is very Santa like. His companion is his granddaughter - "Snowflake-related name", which constantly gets in trouble and needs to be saved by her Grandpa etc. About Turkey. Saint Nicolas had about as much to do with Turkey as USA has with some legendary Mohawk. St.Nicolas lived in the 4the Century. At that time the turks were still somewhere in Central Asia.
Boris, Montreal

Excuse me, but Saint Nicolas was not a Turkish bishop. Saint Nicolas was a Greek bishop of the Byzantine city of Myra in western Asia Minor several centuries prior to the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine empire. The name Nicolas, or Nikolaos in the original Greek, means the victor of the people. Saint Nicolas in Orthodox Christianity is the patron saint of sailors and children. The appropriation of Saint Nicolas as a "Turkish" saint, is therefore historically wrong. And for a Greek like myself a bit too much to swallow!
Kyriakos, Sacramento, California

St Nicholas a TURKISH Bishop? I suppose then Emmanuel Kant was Russian, King Arthur was English, and St Augustine was an Arab.....
Costas, Thessaloniki, Greece

The statement "Santa Claus ... was a Turkish bishop" reveals an amazing ignorance about history. St. Basilius, the Greek Orthodox "Santa Claus", lived in Asia Minor at a time when no Turks had yet appeared in this region. He lived between 330-379 A.D. and he was Greek.
Georgios Iliopoulos, Athens, Greece

Everything written in your diary is fine but please dont call Saint Nicholas a "turkish bishop".You could have use the term orthodox,hellenic or bizantian bishop instead.St Nicholas lived most of his life in Lycia, in Asia Minor (now Turkey). At the time it was a Hellenic Greek province within the Roman Empire.For sure nobody there spoke a word of turkish at that time.Thank you.
George Pitsikalis, Gdansk-Poland

Apologies are indeed due to the Greek readers for the distortion of history. As many pointed out St. Nicolas or St. Basilius, was a Greek bishop famous for his philanthropy that lived in Asia Minor. Although the area is in today's Turkey, at that time it was part of the Greek world as a province of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine empire. The Turks conquered the area much later, probably around the 13th century.
Thomas Moore, Munich, Germany

About that EU money spent in Poland: It's perfectly understandable that people who see their tax money spent on projects in developing countries (yep, Poland is a developing country) get upset. Being Polish I kind of understand how much is needed to level our country with European standards. Still, I think people who hope to preserve the current state of things (the financial disparity of the world) should open their eyes and realize that in order to help majority of people those who can give more should give more. And I'm not saying this as a person who receives all the benefits. I live and work in the US, I have an excellent job, and I pay far more taxes than an average US citizen (or a Polish person, for that matter). But I don't mind that: as long as that money is spent on helping others, it's a good thing. (Spending tax money on this dirty little oil war in Iraq is another subject.) BTW, I find it interesting that after all this time of giving the communism a bad name (former political apparatus in Poland and Russia was more of a dictatorship than anything else) the world is voluntarily headed in that direction. And it's a good thing, I think: equality of people is a sound idea.
Marcin Bratek, Boston, MA, US

I, sometimes, think that the problem of achieving a agreement, any kind of agreement (the budget, the rebate, the constitution...), among the member states of the EU is a question of size. Big states are often incapable of achieving agreements because they are more concerned about their own and huge interests than on the general, and mutual, interest of the whole EU. But little states have always needed to negotiate for surviving, and they are more aware than their bigger companions that the only way for surviving into a globalized world is to search allies. Let's have a look to Luxembourg, for example, they nearly reached and agreement about the budget. If the presidency had lasted only a week more, I'm sure they would do it. In fact, the starting point and the reference for the present budget debate has been his proposal. And Jean Claude Juncker seemed more concerned about the future of the EU than Blair, Chirac and Zapatero.
Emilio Fernández, Albacete (Spain)

The Sheriff of Nottingham is alive and well and has been living these past 45 years in the Elysee Palace. The CAP was set up by de Gaulle to ensure that this time, reparations for WW2 would be paid, unlike after WW1. As France is big country with a peasant culture and Germany at that time was full of guilt about the war, there was perfect symmetry - one country that thought the world owed it a living and another country that thought it owed the world a living. The other members of the then EEC were just bystanders. When the UK joined - which we should have done in the beginning - the scam was exposed but nothing serious has been done to correct other than the British abatement. I cannot understand why German people - and the Dutch who pay even more per head - don't kick their politicians to stop this farce which is bringing the whole of the EU into disrepute and enables the Americans to hide their massive agricultural subsisidies to the vast cost of the many cash-crop farmers in the developing world. Spending the same money on environmental and structural funds would immediately mean that the UK would be happy to remove this anomoly. This could be done over a 5 year period and would benefit the new poorer central European members who suffered not 5 years of occupation but 50.
John, Manchester, UK

I would like to remind those who accuse Britain of robbing the poorer countries that we alone (unlike France,Germany) have given citizens of the new member states full working rights. This amounts to a large injection of cash into those economies through people working here and sending money back home. The real issue with the EU budget is the unjust and bloated CAP. Until we can secure reform of this, Britain should not pay a penny more.
Kevin, Milton Keynes UK

The CAP was conceived in part to compensate the French economy for the impact of German manufacturing in the tariff free trade area created in the EEC in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, in part to remove unfair support one EEC member could give to its agricultural sector as trade barriers in agricultural produce were removed in that treaty and thirdly at a time when rationning had not long been abolished after WWII it was a means to modernise agriculture and increase production. The reason France gets more subsidies out of the CAP is because it is a larger country with more agricultural land. Comparing with the UK, roughly twice the surface area, twice the cultivated area, twice the production and hence twice the subsidies from CAP. A small note here, if the rebate and CAP were abolished, contributions would go down by 40% or around 4 billion, CAP receipts of 2.5 billions would go, rebate of 3.8 billions would go, which would leave the UK 2.3 billions worse off. Which raises the question as to how truly committed to reform our Tony is. Finally the impact of subsidies is not as clear cut as made out to be. Exports subsidies are bad and affect developping countries the most, but some subsidies go towards importing from developping countries at a higher price than world market prices which clearly helps them economically.
Jan, Amsterdam, Netherlands

This is true that more people are more focused on St Claus than on EU problems. I was studying in England (Sheffield/London) and I am familiar with knowledge of the UK inhabitants, so things like "St Claus was a Turkish Bishop" or "in Poland you can meet polar bears" or "Cracov is in Russia" or "Poland's official language is German" etc. It is really annoying to be in the coutry of wealthy and arogant people. The british education standart is a "one big joke" as for me. Recent graduate students know absolutely nothing about Europe . It is quite popular to hear "I do not care". The same situation (or even worse) is in France. I have not meet such vain and overweeing people in my life. This is true that France wants to convert Europe in "bigger France" btw: you cannot be quite normal when whole your life you hear that "the best wine, cuisine, weather, culture, fashion, literature, way of life etc are French". The whole idea about Europen Union is quite difficult to remember and understand when the budget is beeing discussed. So who cares about poor and weak East-european nations ??? Who cares about african farmers ??? As for me subsidising farmers should not exist. If EU wants to compete with China, India, USA and Japan then it should put these money (49% of EU budget) into research, infrastructure and regional development.
Jan Kogut, Warsaw, Poland

It's interesting how people concentrate on the French when thinking about the CAP. Ireland does get its share of the CAP. The CAP is not designed to help France, it's designed to help farmers. The CAP is supposed to be paid to the poorest Europeans. Of course, it's not. It's paid to rich farmers in Ireland, the UK, Italy, Greece, France, Portugal, etc. Poland as well. That's slightly unfair. But now I understand why nobody wants to kill of the CAP. Tony Blair might claim he's against, but that's just for the public. Because the CAP is mostly paid by the richest countries - which are France and Germany - but not by the UK, thanks to its rebate. Now that is really not fair. And that's why eveybody's against the UK's selfish attitude.
Patrick, London, UK

It is interesting to see how, in time, the rules change. How under the political pressure, all the "Equality, Fraternity" slogans are bent. Re-writing existing european laws that governed the federation when "old" members and "not so old" like Spain benefited from for many years. Then, with the acceptance of new members, from the begining they are being treated like second class europeans but they are not.
W Pasternak, Lublin, Poland

Tony Blair disappoints - instead of trying to reform CAP, he wants to appease the French and bully the new members. Why should poorer countries suffer for big French farmers and Tony Blair peace of mind? All this talk of usage of structural funds is bollocks - the projects are there, just beaurocracy of EU holds their relaisation back.
Marcin, Warsaw, Poland

Certainly the CAP has inequalities, but the 'new entrant' farmers are already receiving MUCH less than their 'western' colleagues. It is now time for the others to take some of pressure, not just the new kids on the block. Tony Blair's actions and attitude are a great shock to Poles (and others). I am not going to go on about why the Poles do not deserve to be treated like this - people forget their history in this country far too easily, and have little appreciation or mutual respect for their real friends, which are STILL being treated like enemies, which they never were. Western Europe should be ashamed.
Marek , Hungerford, UK

I like the way that british point fingers on French about CAP, the CAP is a program transeuropean, not french, and if tomorow british farmers was more numberous , uk would be first country to benificiate of it, CAP is for european farmers, not french ones! the Rabate is a shame on the cheek of the country that scream "low unemployement" but hide 14% of jobless in deregulation of jobcenters, and the bigest under poverty peoples class in europe that they hide with thier "economic" model! Blair is selling the servant behaviour of british to the neo cons US admin, why this country would drive EU?
Botonit J, Suisse

The real 'reverse Robin Hood' is the Common Agricultural Policy, giving the relatively rich nation states of Europe an obscene advantage over producers in the developing world. How Europe can promote 'structural adjustments' to these peripheral economies - which impose a removal of trade barriers - whilst retaining this waste of tax-payers money for political expediency is beyond me.
Mark, Edinburgh, UK

The new entrants to the EU have been oversold the benefits of membership and have every right to be disgruntled by Tony Blair's grubby re-working of their situation. Moreover, CAP reform, which he moooted as vital, is yet again being ignored - to the detriment of the poor in Europe and those beyond. Only a few months ago Blair declared his concern for the poor farmers of Africa - whose markets are flooded by subsidised European produce. People are dying because the EU fudges this pernicious system - some Christmas they will have.
Mark Wheatley, London

Blair should be looking after the interests of UK first and foremost - not surrendering everything people have fought and died for without so much as a whimper. The rebate was won because of the inequalites caused by the CAP - those still exist so why should we give any of it back until these inequalities are addressed.
Paul, Winchester, England

I hope that Mark Mardell can reveal more of the pathetic attitudes of European politicians to the historic project of European integration. Money talk is a good instrument to expose their real intentions. The French just want a Europe that is exactly like France, so that they do not have to make any compromises and climb down from their high horse. So much for French intellectual brilliance. The Brits just want no real Europe, so that they can continue deluding themselves about the UK as a global power. So much for the famous British realism. The East Europeans just want money to sink in their corrupt political systems. So much for their economic dynamism. Funny enough, Germany, the great European menace of the past, still displays some real emotional commitment to the project. Unfortunately, they have run out of cash to bribe the other nations......
Ronald Vopel, Brussels

Botonit J from Suisse does not seem to understand the CAP programme. It might well officially BE trans-european, but it was always understood that the French would profit more, after all the French see the EU as an extension of their prestige in the world. And just to dispel a myth: it isn't true that the bulk of the money goes to small farmers, the overwhelming part of the money goes to large industrial companies and of course hobby farmers such as one Elisabeth Windsor. CAP needs to go and needs to be abolished NOW to give African farmers a chance. The French don't want that because of their superiority complex.
Marcel de Vries, The Hague, the Netherlands

I've heard it said that much of Britain's wealth today, comes from a collection of workaholics in the City of London. If that's true then I'm lucky to be swimming in the outwash of their hard work. In my town, the number of new Polish arrivals since the accession is very noticeable. Every second time a stranger passes me in the street, it seems, they are speaking a Slavonic language. They seem cheerful, self-confident and no doubt are hard working. They are polite to me in many of the shop-keeping roles from whom I'm more accustomed to receiving off-handed, lacklustre service. In this regard, they are outcompeting my existing neighbours in the local jobmarket. Did we really join in with Europe in order to prop up the poor from far away? Why is it good for me that other people living in my street should struggle for jobs while these foreigners get them? Why is an Englishman arguing that we ought to be paying to better the Warsaw transport system? Will this bring us a direct benefit? An indirect, but measurable one? I'm sure it's great if you are a metropolitan high-flyer (viz Tony Blair), that you should have an improving collection of plumbers to turn to. But, if you are just a run-of-the-mill muddler along, these guys are a threat. And if the country turns over its tax take to give charity not 'at home', you're doubly whammied.
Andrew, Reading, UK

As a British guy living in Spain and working in Belgium I see these cultures from different perspectives. In Belgium it is said they are the first to make rules in the EU but the last to apply them. In Spain the general population is now a lot wealthier not due to EU grants but due to selling huge swathes of land to us Northern migrants for holiday and retirement homes. However Spain is currently the greatest benefactor of EU grants. I was under the impression that the whol eidea of the EU was for us wealthier nations to plough money into poorer nations until a sort of parity is reached and the whole of europe is one happy europe where everyone has a job, a transport system, a social system and an education system. Maybe Tony wants us to remain a feudal Europe very similar to Middle age England with serfs and peasants governed by a few rich.
Mark Lisle , Brussels, Belgium & Alicante, Spain

Whatever happened to that rather fiendish proposal from Sweden that each country be permitted to pay its farmers the current level of subsidies from their own fund if they want them to continue? Sounds like the best option to me..........
Chris Sheldrake, Ferndown Dorset Uk

Obviously more people find a semi-mythical Anatolian saint more interesting than the economic well-being of a nation of Slavs! However, if the European Union is going to amount to anything, and not end up like the USA with its poor, black south. Then rich countries like Britain are going to have to help their poorer eastern neighbours. And by the way, what about letting in Turkey, which was after all the home of Sinter Klaas?
Vinod Moonesinghe, Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka

'My Euro Blog' isn't really a blog is it? So why call it a blog? Call it a TV programme.
jamie, peckham, UK

If Dan Hannan is serious about this so-called 2005 Congress of Brussels, why does he fail to mention it on his website? PS: For a real Yuletide debate, try asking readers which Nordic country is the real home of Father Christmas . . .
Austin Lane, Brussels, Belgium

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