SINT-NIKLAAS, Belgium – 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 year by year from complaints about racism. Pete is usually played by a white person who paints his face pitch black, dons a frizzy wig and gives himself bright red lips — stereotypes that disappeared from most countries decades ago.
Sint-Niklaas with a church and statue honoring the saint has long been one of the focal points of the celebrations. A grand entrance this Sunday is expected to bring tens of thousands of kids flocking to the "home of the saint."
Yet even in this bastion of saintly tradition, questions are starting to be asked about Black Pete.
Wouter Van Bellingen remembers how, as a black kid 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, Saint Nicholas visits hundreds of villages in Belgium and Holland, arriving by steamer or on his white horse to the delight of shrieking kids across the two countries. The Black Petes do everything from carrying presents to throwing sweets at the kids and generally prancing about until Saint Nicholas day on Dec. 6.
The Dutch cheese capital of Gouda has come up with a strategy for reconciliation. Black Petes will walk side-by-side with yellow-colored "Cheese Petes," a nod to the city's most famous products but also a concession to critics of Black Pete. In another sign of changing times, the daily Dutch children's television report on Saint Nicholas' travels also featured White Petes on Thursday night.
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 last few years, Pete is at least as popular. Kids cling to him, ask him questions, hold his hand," said Raf Rumes, the secretary of the Flanders Saint Nicholas Guild.
In another new touch, almost half of the Petes greeting kids in this town's Saint Nicholas "mansion" — a yearly holiday attraction — are played by women. At the fun house, which reopened this 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.
But efforts at softening Pete's image have failed to subdue bad blood between the pro- and anti-Black Pete camps in the Netherlands, where resentments over immigration have simmered for years. Liberals want to abolish the tradition, while the right-wing firebrand Geert Wilders and his anti-immigration Freedom Party have proposed legislation that would keep Pete black — by law.
"There is a war underway against Black Pete," said Martin Bosma, the party's culture spokesman. "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 Zwarte Piet's image unchanged. That's nearly one-eighth of the entire Dutch population, indicating the depth of emotion over the issue.
But Van Bellingen insists 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."
Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, the Netherlands
Raf Casert can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert