Sinterklaas is coming to town - and some Dutch are upset

The centuries-old tradition, from which Santa Claus was derived, has come under fire for having racial undertones.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

- For Dutch children, the eagerly anticipated jolly man in a red suit comes not Christmas Eve, but on Dec. 5 when "Sinterklaas" arrives by boat from Spain.

While some see him as an enchanting symbol of Dutch culture, Sinterklaas - from whom Americans derived Santa Claus - is not welcomed by everyone. His black-faced assistant, known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, has in recent years come under fire for having racial undertones.

"I understand it's in their tradition to celebrate the event but I have to admit I am deeply offended," says Patrick Chapell, an African-American musician living here in Utrecht.

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Zwarte Piet - whose multiple incarnations are portrayed by white Dutchmen sporting black greasepaint, red lipstick, and woolly Afro wigs - is supposedly darkened by his countless chimney trips delivering presents. But variations on the legend say the Moorish-looking helper came from a slave background.

Mr. Chapell is not alone in his dislike of the tradition, which dates back to the 12th century. It also offends the many people of color among the Netherlands' large foreign population, which is estimated to account for 25 percent of the country’s total population. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that people of color make up 25 percent of the Dutch population.]

But where some see offense, others see fun. "It's our tradition and I am really proud of it," says Marjoline Wentzel, a Dutch-born museum worker who has received gifts from Sinterklaas. "I don't see any racism in it. It's just fun."

In many Dutch towns, thousands of people flood the busy streets hoping to catch a glimpse of Sinterklaas and his convoy as Piet poses for pictures with his fans.

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Christmas celebrations are marked separately. Many expect presents during Sinterklaas's visit rather than on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are celebrated with family gatherings and meals rather than gifts.

Dutch historian Bert Theunissen says Sinterklaas has been celebrated long enough in the Netherlands to dispel any racial implications.

"I think I speak on behalf of many Dutch people when I say it's utter nonsense to associate it with racism," says Mr. Theunissen, a history professor at Utrecht University. "It's a tradition that goes back to way before the 19th century and it simply has no racial connotations whatsoever."

The conservative-led Dutch government considers Sinterklaas important enough that he's even included on a test of Dutch culture administered to immigrants seeking residence status.

In addition to being a strong cultural tradition, Sinterklaas also has a significant economic impact. This year alone the Dutch economy was expected to get a 700 million euro ($830 million) boost in retail revenue as shoppers purchased gifts for family and friends.

That figure is twice the overall spending during the same period in 1995, says Simon van Ommen, a researcher at the Hague-based Research Center for Retailers.

"I don't know if that's a sign of popularity but I know it's a good sign for the economy," says Mr. van Ommen.

Still, Chapell isn't convinced.

"Fair enough, if it's good for the economy, but can anyone out there tell me why the servant has always been black and not vice versa?"

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