AMSTERDAM -- The Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus arrived in the Netherlands on Saturday to the delight of thousands of children. But some adults protested vigorously against one element of the beloved tradition they find racist: his servant in blackface makeup, Black Pete.
In the annual Dutch Sinterklaas festival, St. Nicholas arrives by steamboat in mid-November and spends a month in the country with dozens of the Petes, clown-like figures who leave cookies, chocolate and other treats for children. The affair ends in a night of gift-giving on Dec. 5.
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Protesters say the Petes -- servants who wear blackface makeup, red lipstick and frizzy "Afro" wigs -- are blatant racist caricatures and should be banned. But in a country where 90 percent of the people have European ancestry, a large majority feels there is no racial insult intended by Black Pete. They say he's a positive figure of fun and that the dissent is a sign of political correctness gone overboard.
The debate over the figure has gone on for years, but it is now electrifying -- and polarizing -- the Netherlands as never before.
"The world is watching, and the Netherlands has been found wanting," anti-Pete protester Quinsy Gario told a group of about 300 supporters in Amsterdam, most of whom were black.
Gario, a black artist who has emerged as the public face of the anti-Pete movement, has been subjected to unprintable insults and death threats for speaking out against the tradition. But at Saturday's protest he had trouble at times being heard over supporters chanting his name.
He said the growing support underlines the change the national debate over Black Pete has recently undergone. Two years ago Gario was thrown face down on the concrete by police and dragged away for daring to merely wear a T-shirt with the text "Black Pete is Racism" near the place where Sinterklaas was due to arrive.
The debate exploded in national media this year after it emerged that U.N. cultural experts were examining whether the tradition is racist.
Verene Shepherd, head of the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, said on Dutch TV she "does not understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery, and that in the 21st century this practice should stop." One change anti-Pete activists have suggested is replacing his black face with smudges, since children are usually told his face has become black from going down chimneys.
But in two days following Shepherd's remarks, more than 2 million people responded by endorsing 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 this issue in a country where religious or political debates often are met with a shrug.
On the outskirts of Saturday's demonstration in Amsterdam, Riet Nauta shook her head in disbelief as she listened to its speakers.
She said she understands why the figure's appearance could be interpreted as offensive -- but only by selectively choosing elements, interpreting them in a negative light, then inflating them.
"They can always find something," she said. "Please, it's a celebration for children and that's the way we should see it."
The issue is sometimes linked to ongoing tensions between native Dutch and immigrants. Opponents often are told to embrace the tradition -- or "go home" -- a remark that's especially galling for second- or third-generation Dutch people.
Judith Kallenberg, a white woman who thinks Pete's appearance should be changed, said she was disappointed that few of her friends have supported her. She said she had never thought of Pete fans as racist and still doesn't. But after the public discussion this year, she said, it was impossible not to detect a racist element that surfaces at times.
She said she was demonstrating in Amsterdam "to show my disagreement" with retaining Black Pete as part of the celebration in his current form.
Last month a black newscaster, Humberto Tan, read aloud on television responses he had received when he came out as anti-Pete, including a lynching threat.
Two white female Dutch celebrities who oppose Pete and have married black men -- Victoria's Secret model Doutzen Kroes and singer Anouk -- have been the target of ugly sexual insults.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte has sided with tradition. "Black Pete is black. There's not much I can do to change that," he said.