In this town named after Saint Nicholas, Yuletide cheer is being clouded by controversy over the good saint’s helpers.
Across the Netherlands and Belgium, celebrations in which Saint Nicholas rolls into town surrounded by a host of “Black Petes” have come under increasing pressure yearly from complaints about racism. Black Pete, known locally as Zwarte Piet, is usually played by a white person who paints their face pitch black, dons a frizzy wig and sports bright red lips — stereotyped caricatures that disappeared from most nations decades ago.
Sint-Niklaas, Belgium — with a church and statue honoring the saint — has long been one of the focal points of the celebrations. A grand entrance yesterday was expected to bring tens of thousands of children flocking to the “home of the saint.”
Yet even in this bastion of tradition, questions are starting to be asked about Black Pete.
Wouter Van Bellingen remembered how, as a black child growing up in mostly white Sint-Niklaas, he used to be taunted with chants of: “Look, there goes Black Pete.”
“Kids can be hard when it comes to that,” said the former Sint-Niklaas alderman and current director of the region’s Minorities Forum. “I retorted with: ‘there goes White Pete.’ I always had my answer.”
Around this time of year, people dressed as Saint Nicholas visit hundreds of villages in Belgium and Holland, arriving by steamer or on his white horse to the delight of shrieking children across the two nations. The Black Petes do everything from carrying presents to throwing sweets at the crowds and generally prancing about until Saint Nicholas Day on Dec. 6.
Black Pete has evolved over the years. A quarter-century ago, Black Pete was a scary character, carrying a big bag to hold naughty kids 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 past few years, Pete is at least as popular. Kids cling to him, ask him questions, hold his hand,” Flanders Saint Nicholas Guild secretary Raf Rumes said.
In another new touch, almost half of the Petes greeting crowds in this town’s Saint Nicholas “mansion” — a yearly holiday attraction — are played by women. At the fun house, which reopened last week for a month-long run, children squealed as female Petes showed them Saint Nicholas’ dining room and sleeping quarters for all of the Petes.
However, efforts at softening Pete’s image have failed to subdue disagreements between the pro- and anti-Black Pete camps in the Netherlands, where resentment over immigration has simmered for years. Liberals want to abolish the tradition, while the right-wing firebrand Dutch Party for Freedom founder Geert Wilders and his anti-immigration party have proposed legislation that would keep Pete black — by law.
“There is a war under way against Black Pete,” party culture spokesman Martin Bosma said. “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.”
Last year, more than 2 million people endorsed a Facebook petition to keep Black Pete’s image unchanged. That’s about one-eighth of the entire Dutch population, indicating the depth of emotion over the issue.
However, Van Bellingen insists that democracy is not about numbers alone.
“It is about the will of the majority and the rights of the minority,” he said. “As a majority, you have to be sensitive and show empathy for things that are hurtful to a minority.”
Van Bellingen agrees with Rumes that children should take center stage in the festivities — just without Black Pete.
“Saint Nicolas is a great celebration in itself,” he said. “Only, I think you need to get rid of Black Pete to turn it into a party for everyone.”
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