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Dutch St. Nick Sidekick Is Politically Incorrect

A black character in today's parades seen as racist by minorities.

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The Dutch version of Santa Claus is getting an overhaul, despite strong opposition to altering what some see as a beloved Christmas tradition.

Unlike in the US, where Santa faces criticism for his pipe, fur-trimmed suit, portly physique, and commercial effect on impressionable children, the Netherlands debate involves a St. Nick sidekick known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

The character has been banned from holiday celebrations for 6,000 Amsterdam children because a local school board thinks he's a racial stereotype.

In this country's Christmas tale, St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, lives in sunny Spain, not the icy North Pole. He sails to the Netherlands in late November accompanied by his Moorish helper. The Moors are a Muslim people from northwest Africa who occupied Spain in the 8th century.

The pair's yearly visit is punctuated by street parades that draw thousands of children, who

paint their faces black and outline their smiles with bright orange and red lipstick to resemble Black Pete.

For although St. Nicholas gets top billing, his helper steals the show with his mischievous pranks and broken Creole speech, the Dutch equivalent of minstrel-show patter.

The traditional festivities wrap up today with St. Nicholas and his helper delivering bags of gifts to each child's home.

But more doors are being shut on Black Pete as the Netherlands population diversifies and its ethnic communities become more vocal.

In past years, groups have demonstrated against Black Pete's subservient role, but this year's decision by a school board in southeast Amsterdam marks the capital's first government action, according to board chairman Andre Haakmat.

"This holiday is making some [minority] children very upset," Mr. Haakmat says. "They are nervous and they don't want to go to school. When they are in the streets, white children mock them. They are fighting each other."

Responding to parental concerns that the holiday is a traumatic experience for minority children, the board gave its 15 public schools a choice: Paint Black Pete's face green, yellow, red, or blue - or ban him from celebrations altogether.

Haakmat said the decision was an attempt to teach tolerance and show compassion for the student body in his district, which represents 70 nationalities and is predominately non-Caucasian.


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