Dutch protest arrival of Santa with black helpers

Netherlands debates custom some call racist stereotyping

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AMSTERDAM — Thousands of families Saturday welcomed the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus in the northern city of Gronigen, as hundreds gathered in Amsterdam to protest at the presence of his assistant Black Peter, whom they called a racist stereotype.

In Dutch Christmastime tradition, Sinterklaas — St Nicholas — is accompanied on his holiday rounds by Zwarte Piet, his black helper. The role is usually played by a white person in blackface, with a frizzy wig, large gold earrings and exaggerated thick red lips.

Some 50,000 children and their parents welcomed Sinterklass as he arrived by steamboat in Gronigen, in what the city administration described as a "very sociable" event.

The festivities end on Dec. 5.

Earlier this month, an Amsterdam court ruled that Sinterklaas may be accompanied by his black assistant during the annual parade, despite criticism that the Black Peter figure could be considered a racist symbol.

The court said the event does not endanger public order, while sidestepping the racism accusations.

A fierce debate has emerged over the tradition of the helpers. While some black residents of Holland find the depiction offensive, the majority of Dutch say Pete is a figure of fun whose appearance is harmless, his face soot-stained from going down chimneys to deliver presents to children.

Verene Shepard, the head of a working group on people of African descent at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called for an end to the tradition.