A Dutch court earlier this year declared the practice racist, although in the 200-year history of the tradition there has never, until today, been protested. The issue was brought forward by UN observers from Jamaica who declared the practice racist a year ago. A higher Dutch court just this week overturned the ruling and anti-Black Pete protesters organized. (Reports last month said traditionalists were going to protest when it appeared Black Pete was doomed).
Across Belgium and the Netherlands, celebrations in which Saint Nicholas rolls into town surrounded by a host of “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.
On Saturday, police detained several anti-Black Pete protesters as Saint Nicholas arrived in the historic Dutch city of Gouda in a nationally televised event. Thousands of children and their parents lined the streets and gathered at a central market square to catch a glimpse of the saint known in the Netherlands as Sinterklaas.
Police spokeswoman Yvette Verboon said the protesters were detained because they were in the center of Gouda and not at two locations that had been set aside for protesters well away from the festivities.
The Netherlands’ highest administrative court, the Council of State, ruled in favor of the controversial Christmas figure “Black Pete” or “Zwarte Piet” as he is known in Dutch on Wednesday. The helper of Sinterklaas (the name of Santa Claus in the Netherlands) was brought before thae court after a lower judiciary in Amsterdam agreed that the figure should be banned from the traditional festivities marking the arrival of St. Nicholas on December fifth.
Black Pete has evolved over the years. A quarter century ago, Black Pete was a scary character, carrying a big bag to hold naughty children 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.
“The last few years, Pete is at least as popular. Kids cling to him, ask him questions, hold his hand,” said Raf Rumes, the secretary of the Flanders Saint Nicholas Guild.
In another new touch, almost half of the Petes greeting children in this town’s Saint Nicholas “mansion” — a yearly holiday attraction — are played by women. At the fun house, which reopened this week for a monthlong run, children squealed as female Petes showed them Saint Nicholas’ dining room and sleeping quarters for all of the Petes.
But efforts at softening Pete’s image have failed to subdue bad blood between the pro- and anti-Black Pete camps in the Netherlands, where resentments over immigration have simmered for years. Liberals want to abolish the tradition, while the right-wing firebrand Geert Wilders and his anti-immigration Freedom Party have proposed legislation that would keep Pete black — by law.
“There is a war underway against Black Pete,” said Martin Bosma, the party’s culture spokesman. “Ministers and mayors are working to give this loyal helper another color. That must not happen. Our culture should not be damaged from on high. This law must protect Black Pete.”