Saint Nick’s sidekick a bone of racial contention in Belgium and Holland

Across the Netherlands and Belgium, celebrations in which Saint Nicholas rolls into town surrounded by a host of Zwarte Piets (“Black Petes”) have come under increasing pressure year by year from complaints about racism. Pete is usually played by a white person who paints his face pitch black, dons a frizzy wig and gives himself bright red lips — stereotypes that disappeared from most countries decades ago. Around this time of year, Saint Nicholas visits hundreds of villages in Belgium and Holland, arriving by steamer or on his white horse to the delight of shrieking kids across the two countries. The Black Petes do everything from carrying presents to throwing sweets at the kids and generally prancing about until Saint Nicholas day on Dec. 6.

As a majority you have to be sensitive and show empathy for things that are hurtful to a minority. Saint Nicolas is a great celebration in itself. Only, I think you need to get rid of Black Pete to turn it into a party for everyone.

Wouter Van Bellingen, former Sint-Niklaas alderman and current director of the region’s Minorities Forum

Police detained several anti-Black Pete protesters as Saint Nicholas arrived in the historic Dutch city of Gouda on Saturday in a nationally televised event. Black Pete has evolved over the years. A quarter century ago, Black Pete was a scary character, carrying a big bag to hold naughty kids and a whip to punish the disobedient. Promoting him in recent years as a happy-go-lucky sidekick full of quirky madness has helped him to compete in popularity with Saint Nicholas himself. But efforts at softening Pete’s image have failed to subdue bad blood between the pro- and anti-Black Pete camps in the Netherlands.