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Dutch St. Nick Sidekick Is Politically Incorrect

A black character in today's parades seen as racist by minorities.

By Rachael LevySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 1997



AMSTERDAM

The Dutch version of Santa Claus is getting an overhaul, despite strong opposition to altering what some see as a beloved Christmas tradition.

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Unlike in the US, where Santa faces criticism for his pipe, fur-trimmed suit, portly physique, and commercial effect on impressionable children, the Netherlands debate involves a St. Nick sidekick known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

The character has been banned from holiday celebrations for 6,000 Amsterdam children because a local school board thinks he's a racial stereotype.

In this country's Christmas tale, St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, lives in sunny Spain, not the icy North Pole. He sails to the Netherlands in late November accompanied by his Moorish helper. The Moors are a Muslim people from northwest Africa who occupied Spain in the 8th century.

The pair's yearly visit is punctuated by street parades that draw thousands of children, who

paint their faces black and outline their smiles with bright orange and red lipstick to resemble Black Pete.

For although St. Nicholas gets top billing, his helper steals the show with his mischievous pranks and broken Creole speech, the Dutch equivalent of minstrel-show patter.

The traditional festivities wrap up today with St. Nicholas and his helper delivering bags of gifts to each child's home.

But more doors are being shut on Black Pete as the Netherlands population diversifies and its ethnic communities become more vocal.

In past years, groups have demonstrated against Black Pete's subservient role, but this year's decision by a school board in southeast Amsterdam marks the capital's first government action, according to board chairman Andre Haakmat.

"This holiday is making some [minority] children very upset," Mr. Haakmat says. "They are nervous and they don't want to go to school. When they are in the streets, white children mock them. They are fighting each other."

Responding to parental concerns that the holiday is a traumatic experience for minority children, the board gave its 15 public schools a choice: Paint Black Pete's face green, yellow, red, or blue - or ban him from celebrations altogether.

Haakmat said the decision was an attempt to teach tolerance and show compassion for the student body in his district, which represents 70 nationalities and is predominately non-Caucasian.

But the many-hued Black Petes were scarce, if there at all, in other Amsterdam neighborhoods, whose school boards have refused to adopt the multicultural example.

"We know where Black Pete comes from," says Guus Blok, spokesman from a neighboring district. "He's black because he comes down the chimney and when he gives you a hand[shake] your hand turns black. Really, these people are kind of silly, calling it racism."

Many Dutch cannot comprehend the offense caused by Black Pete, a character whom they remember as a cherished childhood friend, a black man bringing wonderful gifts from a warm country.

Throughout Amsterdam, holiday decorations are dominated by images of St. Nicholas's helper. In the city's largest department store, huge jesters' heads grin and bob in the windows. And inside, larger-than-life mechanical Black Petes climb velvet ropes to the store's sixth floor.

Even the official Amsterdam Sinterklaas Committee - tasked with organizing the city's yearly festivities and preserving the tradition - prefers not to delve too deeply into Black Pete's history: Is he servant or slave? Is his skin black from chimney soot or because he is a Moor?

"It's an institution that started more than 100 years ago when the word 'discrimination' didn't exist," says Sinterklaas Committee Secretary Marcelle Meyer. "It's just like Santa Claus always riding his reindeer; you can't have a Black Pete who is white."

Each year the Sinterklaas Committee receives 80 to 100 letters from children and teenagers wishing to play Black Pete during Amsterdam's holiday festivities. The selection and training of St. Nicholas's helpers is part of an elaborate hierarchy, where the title "chief commander" is bestowed on the oldest and most experienced Black Pete, and seniority determines which helper will lead St. Nicholas's white horse through the city streets.

Flores Thoolen is chief commander within Amsterdam's Black Pete rank-and-file, and has appeared in blackface for 24 years.

He dismisses allegations that St. Nick's helper is a racial caricature. Instead, Thoolen believes Black Pete promotes integration, pointing out that when black children from the former Dutch colony of Surinam, in South America, have been chosen to play the role, they insist their faces be painted as well.

"Black Pete is only a boy in this holiday story," says Mr. Thoolen. "Without him, St. Nicholas couldn't do his work in a proper way."