There are some things Dutch kids can count on. Rain. Bicycles. And every year, on a cold November day, a gift-bearing Saint Nicholas who arrives, accompanied by African-looking helpers. While the festivities leading up to the Dec. 5 celebration of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, will surely take place this year, they’re drawing international scrutiny. A panel that advises the United Nations on human rights has questioned whether depictions of the mischievous helpers, collectively called Black Petes and typically portrayed by whites in blackface paint, are racist.
That has fueled a furious backlash among the Dutch: More than 2 million people have liked a Facebook group supporting the Petes. Fewer than 13,000 have joined another group saying they’re racist. Anouk, a Dutch singer who this year represented the country at the Eurovision Song Contest, has spoken out in recent weeks against traditional portrayals of the Black Petes. In response, she says, she’s received hate messages.
Retailers are voting for the Petes by keeping shelves stocked with goods bearing their image. Stores run by Ahold, owner of the Stop & Shop chain in the U.S., sell everything from Black Pete children’s outfits and face-painting kits to bath gels bearing grinning Black Petes with wide lips and gold hoop earrings. Giant stuffed Petes will again climb the atrium at De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’s premier department store. Toy store Bart Smit sells Playmobil sets of three Black Petes for €9.99 ($13.50).
Blackface, the practice of painting a person of European descent to look African, has long been decried in the U.S. and elsewhere as racist. Backers of the Petes are quick to point out that the Netherlands doesn’t have the same history of slavery as the U.S. and say there’s nothing negative about Black Pete being black. “This is part of our heritage,” says Erik Maarten Muller, a Web designer in the northern Dutch city of Den Helder. “We should be allowed to keep that.”
It’s unclear when the Dutch Saint Nicholas, by legend a bishop who spends most of the year in Spain, acquired black helpers. Many trace the modern version of the tale to an 1850 book called Saint Nicholas and His Servant, in which an African boy accompanied Nick. Undisputed is that Black Pete has since become big business. The country is full of Petes in the weeks after Saint Nicholas’s steamboat arrives—at a different Dutch port every year, in a nationally televised event with actors playing the saint and his Petes. Shops host Saint Nicholas events, and blackface Petes walk the streets hauling bags filled with gingersnaps for kids. In most families the occasion trumps Christmas, when dinner is the main event, as the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year; it accounted for some $675 million in sales in 2012, according to Detailhandel Nederland, a trade group of Dutch retailers. “As long as Saint Nicholas is celebrated by a large part of the population in the Netherlands and there’s demand for the products, supermarkets will continue to sell them,” says Miranda Boer, a spokeswoman for the Centraal Bureau Levensmiddelenhandel (CBL), an industry group of food retailers. Ahold referred requests for comment to the CBL.
Some companies are cautious. Clothing and housewares retailer Hema says it’s “closely monitoring” the debate to decide how to proceed. Airport operator Schiphol Group says it focuses decorations on Christmas rather than Saint Nicholas because of its international audience. The Dutch postal service, which this year for the first time included Saint Nick on seasonal stamps, chose to represent Pete in silhouette.
In the U.S., pancake mix pitchwoman Aunt Jemima and rice man Uncle Ben both underwent makeovers decades ago to remove negative racial stereotypes. And the Washington Redskins football franchise is under renewed pressure to change its name, which critics say is a racial epithet. But branding experts say Black Pete is here to stay. “You can’t prevent people from keeping a tradition alive,” says Suzanne Stahlie, a managing director at retail consulting firm FutureBrand in Paris.
Some contend that at least Black Pete is evolving. Actor Erik van Muiswinkel, who plays the coveted role of Head Pete in Saint Nicholas’s boat parade each year, says that while Pete once was Saint Nick’s silly sidekick and enforcer—beating kids who were naughty-not-nice, and stuffing them into a sack to be hauled off to Spain—he’s becoming a clever right-hand man. “It’s perfectly possible to make Pete gradually less black and less of a servant,” Van Muiswinkel wrote to Dutch newspaper NRC on Oct. 22, adding that some Petes are now women and that most no longer fake an exaggerated Antillean accent. Some people have advocated dusting paint on the Petes’ faces rather than doing a full-on coat, with the explanation that he got dirty going down the chimney.
The fate of this year’s parade in Amsterdam is in flux, with a district court scheduled to hear arguments on Nov. 8 about prohibiting it. Prime Minister Mark Rutte has issued his verdict on the matter, saying the issue is up to society to decide. “Everyone who wants to invite a White Pete to his house is free to do so,” Rutte told reporters on Oct. 18. “But the historical parable is about Saint Nicholas and Black Pete. And black is really black. I can’t do much to change that.”