Dutch Tradition of Black Pete Under Fire at the UN

The month of November sees the launch of an annual Christmas festival for children built around the characters of Sinterklaas — the Dutch version of Santa Claus — and his noted sidekick, Zwarte Piet or Black Pete. The tradition of the festival dates back five centuries and the popularity of Black Pete in particular has grown immensely since the early 20th century. But now there groups calling the character of Black Pete a racist caricature and are asking Amsterdam city officials to pull the permit for the popular annual festival.

The media today is reporting the issue has now reached the UN Human Rights Commission.

Just as the history of Santa Claus has morphed over time so too has the history of Black Pete evolved.

Black Pete’s role has always represented a more sinister component of the celebration of Christmas for children as he carried either a stick for beating children or carried a large sack for kidnapping them. Ancient tradition tied the origin of Black Pete not to Africa, but to Spain, which occupied Holland in the 15th century.

Over the past 100 years or so the character of Black Pete has softened considerably. Once dressed in pirate garb, wearing earrings and a jaunty feather, the character morphed from the more serious imposer of punishment to a willing servant of Father Christmas whose job it was to remove hay and carrots from children’s shoes and replace them with candy and gifts.

What has not changed is the black face — and Sinterklaas shows up at the festival with dozens of Black Petes — typically white people wearing blackface makeup with red lips and curly “Afro” wigs.

On Thursday, dozens of protesters overflowed a hearing about the permit at Amsterdam City Hall.

One of 21 people who filed formal complaints, Imro Rietveld, described growing up as the only black-skinned child in his class. Every year, he said he was subjected to a month of taunts such as “your whole family is coming over in the boat” and “can you do tricks?”

He said some people are afraid to speak out against Black Pete because they are worried about being ridiculed or even losing their jobs, and he had been warned against coming.

“For the good of all the children,” Rietveld said. “This should actually be changed in the whole country.”

Opponents say the Sinterklaas festival should continue, but Pete’s appearance should be changed.

Mayor Eberhard van der Laan will rule on the Amsterdam permit by the end of the month.

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