Time for Santa to wave "vaarwel" to Black Pete?

Mon Dec 3, 2012 10:26am EST
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By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Thomas Escritt

BRUSSELS/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Netherlands and Belgium are two countries that pride themselves on progressive laws and open societies, but critics say they are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to depictions of Santa Claus and his helpers.

Saint Nicholas, or "Sinterklaas" in Dutch, brings presents to children on December 5 in the Netherlands and on December 6 in Belgium, and is always accompanied by at least one assistant dressed in 17th century costume who has a blackened face.

The tradition has been difficult for Dutch and Belgian people to explain abroad, where "Zwarte Piet" (Black Pete) is viewed with either outrage or ridicule.

Dutch pub "De Hems" in London opts for blue face paint instead. Sinterklaas celebrations in western Canada organized by the Dutch community were called off last year and former Dutch colony Suriname has said Zwarte Piet is not welcome this year because of concerns over racism.

For most Dutch and Belgians Zwarte Piet is an innocuous fairytale character who assists the popular Sinterklaas and hands out candy to children, but some there too argue he is a harmful stereotype best done away with.

"It was about six years ago when my mum came home from work and phoned me," performance artist Quinsy Gario, who was born on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, told Reuters.

"On the phone I could hear her trembling. She was upset, livid, and said someone at work had called her Zwarte Piet."

In 2011, Gario decided to protest against the tradition by standing with a "Zwarte Piet is racism" T-shirt in a crowd watching a Sinterklaas parade in the Dutch town of Dordrecht. His subsequent arrest made headlines in Dutch media.   Continued...

Saint Nicholas (L) is followed by his two assistants called "Zwarte Piet" (Black Pete) during a traditional parade in central Brussels December 1, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir