Saint Nicholas (L) is followed by his two assistants called 'Zwarte Piet' (Black Pete) during a traditional parade in central Brussels, Belgium. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
The Netherlands and Belgium are two countries that pride
themselves on progressive laws and open societies, but
critics say they are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to
depictions of Santa Claus and his helpers.
Saint Nicholas, or "Sinterklaas" in Dutch, brings presents to
children on December 5 in the Netherlands and on December 6
in Belgium, and is always accompanied by at least one
assistant dressed in 17th century costume who has a blackened
The tradition has been difficult for Dutch and Belgian people
to explain abroad, where "Zwarte Piet" (Black Pete) is viewed
with either outrage or ridicule.
Dutch pub "De Hems" in London opts for blue face paint
instead. Sinterklaas celebrations in western Canada organised
by the Dutch community were called off last year and former
Dutch colony Suriname has said Zwarte Piet is not welcome
this year because of concerns over racism.
For most Dutch and Belgians Zwarte Piet is an innocuous
fairytale character who assists the popular Sinterklaas and
hands out candy to children, but some there too argue he is a
harmful stereotype best done away with.
"It was about six years ago when my mum came home from work
and phoned me," performance artist Quinsy Gario, who was born
on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, told Reuters.
"On the phone I could hear her trembling. She was upset,
livid, and said someone at work had called her Zwarte Piet."
In 2011, Gario decided to protest against the tradition by
standing with a "Zwarte Piet is racism" T-shirt in a crowd
watching a Sinterklaas parade in the Dutch town of Dordrecht.
His subsequent arrest made headlines in Dutch media.
Film by a bystander showed three police officers pinning him
to the ground and kneeing him in the back. Gario also said he
had pepper spray sprayed in his eyes.
"I spent six and a-half hours in a jail cell for freedom of
expression," he said.
Nevertheless, Zwarte Piet remains popular in 2012, and his
traditional arrival by boat with Sinterklaas a few weeks
ahead of the actual celebration was witnessed by thousands of
starry-eyed children in Brussels and Amsterdam.
Sinterklaas, the presents he brings, as well as the
traditional food and candy sold around this time are also
good business for companies such as toy stores and
"Families with children are a very important customer group
of ours. How would you explain to your children that Zwarte
Piet is no longer allowed?," said Chief Operating Officer
Sander van der Laan of Albert Heijn, the Netherlands' largest
Dutch anti-discrimination organisation RADAR said that it
would talk to retail organisations in the coming months about
how to make Zwarte Piet less racist.
"We believe that you have to go to Piet, not Zwarte Piet, to
leave the celebration intact but get rid of the stereotypes,"
said Margriet Maris, a lawyer at RADAR.
Formal complaints are still quite rare. Belgium's centre of
equal opportunities said that of more than 4,000 complaints
it received a year only one or two were related to Zwarte
RADAR said it had received about 25 related complaints this
year, still only a fraction of the 1,000 it dealt with
The tradition of St Nicholas exists in other European
countries, including Austria and Germany. But he is only
accompanied by black helpers in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Celebrations were depicted on paintings of 17th century Dutch
artists Jan Steen and Richard Brakenburg, but Zwarte Piet
only made his first appearance in a mid-19th century
illustrated book by Dutch teacher Jan Schenkman.
Entitled "St Nicholas and his servant," it showed a short,
dark-faced man dressed in a Moorish costume a few steps
behind an imposing white man with a white beard and bishop's
"There's a theory that says that important people had a black
servant, it was a status symbol. Sinterklaas was an important
man, so he needed one too," said John Helsloot a researcher
at the Meertens Institute in Amsterdam.
"Somebody who dresses up as Zwarte Piet is not a racist but
it is a fact that he's part of a tradition which gives a
stereotypical, racist image of black people," he said.
Pressure on Zwarte Piet seems to be increasing in 2012 and
even well-known conservative blog "Geen Stijl" (No Style) has
written that it's time for Sinterklaas to find a new helper.
"It's 2012, people," wrote GeenStijl in a post that attracted
much attention. "We're better than Zwarte Piet."