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THE HAGUE, Netherlands – As Dutch children eagerly anticipate the arrival of their country's version of Santa Claus this weekend, opponents and supporters of his controversial helper Black Pete are gearing up for protests.
Demonstrations for and against Black Pete have in recent years become almost as much of a tradition as the arrival of Sinterklaas, the white-bearded, red-robed Dutch version of Saint Nicholas.
Black Pete is often played by white people with their faces daubed in dark makeup. Supporters see him as a traditional children's character, while opponents decry him as a racist stereotype.
The nationally televised arrival parade takes place Saturday in the picturesque village of Zaandijk, north of Amsterdam. Sinterklaas and his helpers arrive on a boat and will then tour the village, past historic windmills.
Geralt Lammers, a spokesman for Zaandam municipality, which includes Zaandijk, said Friday that protest groups, two in favor and two against, have said they will stage demonstrations.
The municipality has set up special locations for the protests, well away from one another to avoid possible confrontations.
The most prominent protest group, Kick Out Black Pete, says on its Facebook page that it is planning demonstrations in 18 municipalities over the weekend, but not in Zaandijk.
One of the groups planning to demonstrate in support of Black Pete in Zaandijk is the far-right Netherlands People's Union.
The NTR public broadcaster responsible for the televised event says that the Black Petes in the parade will have faces in various shades, caused by smudges of soot from going up and down chimneys to deliver gifts.
"The more often a Pete has been through a chimney, the more soot he or she has on their face," NTR said in a statement earlier this year.
Anti-Pete protesters took their arguments to court this week, arguing the character was racist and discriminatory. But a judge refused their request to block Black Pete's involvement in the televised parade.
"Black Pete is undoubtedly changing," said judge Antoon Schotman. "Some think that the process is moving too slowly and that's fine. Others believe the process is moving too quickly. There is no objective way of measuring it. What is important is that the conversation continues."