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Dutch version of St. Nick's helpers at heart of uproar

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 7:45 p.m.
In this photo taken Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 a child dressed as 'Zwarte Piet' or 'Black Pete', right, is watching a parade after St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, arrived by boat in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in winter are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of St. Nicholas' little helpers resemble a racist caricature of a black person. The overwhelming majority of Dutch, who pride themselves on tolerance, are fiercely devoted to their holiday tradition and say 'Zwarte Piet', whose name means 'Black Pete', is absolutely harmless, a fictional figure who does not represent any race. But now a growing group of Dutch natives are questioning whether this particular part of the tradition should be changed. (AP Photo/ Margriet Faber)

AMSTERDAM — There are some things Dutch kids can count on. Rain. Bicycles. And every year, on a cold November day, a gift-bearing St. Nicholas will arrive, accompanied by African-looking helpers.

The three weeks of festivities leading up to the Dec. 5 celebration of Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, are drawing international scrutiny. A panel that advises the United Nations on human rights has questioned whether depictions of the mischievous helpers, known as 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 are racist.

Anouk, a popular Dutch singer, has spoken out against traditional portrayals of the Black Petes. In response, she says, she has received hate messages.

Retailers are voting for the Petes by keeping shelves stocked with goods bearing their image. Stores run by Royal Ahold, owner of the Stop & Shop chain in the United States, sell Black Pete costumes and face-painting kits. Giant stuffed Petes will again climb the atrium at De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam's premier department store.

Blackface has long been decried in the United States 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 United States and say there's nothing negative about Black Pete being black. “This is part of our heritage,” says Erik Maarten Muller, a Web designer. “We should be allowed to keep that.”

It's unclear when the Dutch St. Nicholas, by legend a bishop who spends most of the year in Spain, acquired black helpers. Many trace the tale to an 1850 book, “Saint Nicholas and his Servant.”

“The figure Black Pete has been made up by a writer in the 19th century at a time slavery still existed,” said Jimmy Veldwijk, 49, a DJ who came to the Netherlands from Suriname. “This personality is clearly based on a slave. That can no longer be tolerated in the 21st century.”

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