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Santa's little blackface helper

Is the Belgian and Dutch tradition of Black Peter racist?

SINT-NIKLAAS, Belgium — To a visitor from across the Atlantic the scene would be disconcerting to say the least.

Dozens of young Europeans in satin britches and curly afro wigs, in blackface, cavort through a gleeful crowd. Their rouged lips and darkened faces recall the notorious minstrel shows of 19th-century America.

Dressed in scarlet and blue, with lace collars and feathered caps, the performers descend on ropes from the neo-gothic Town Hall tower. One walks a tightrope high above the market square. Flashing white grins, groups scamper around the packed plaza scattering fistfuls of candy to delighted kids.

Black Peter performer
A Black Peter performer smiles in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium
(Paul Ames/GlobalPost)

Welcome to the world of Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, the controversial character who replaces the elves as Santa’s little helper in Belgium and the Netherlands.

To some, St. Nick's black-painted assistant represents a harmless and cherished tradition. To others it's outdated, offensive and inappropriate in an increasingly multi-ethnic European society.

"It has to be the most racist celebration in contemporary Western civilization,” writes Anthony Murrell, a black American resident of Amsterdam. “It serves as a virtual assault on all black and brown people living in Holland.”

In a Facebook post to civil rights campaigner Rev. Al Sharpton, Murrell argues for cultural sanctions against the Netherlands in response to Black Pete.

Although many Dutch and Belgian families now also give gifts at Christmas, traditionally the big day for children in the Low Countries has been St. Nicholas day on Dec. 6. The celebration recognizes a fourth-century bishop from what is now Turkey who became renowned among medieval Christians for his generosity and help for children.

A kindly, white bearded figure in red bishop’s robes, the Dutch “Sinterklaas” became the prototype for Santa Claus in 19th-century America.

Around the same time, back in the Netherlands, St. Nick gained a black assistant. His origins are obscure. Some say he evolved from a devil tamed by the saint, others that Pete is an Ethiopian slave freed by St. Nick, or a Moor with origins in Spain. Attempts to make him more politically correct suggest that Black Pete’s black face is actually the result of climbing down chimneys to deliver presents.