Blackface Christmas tradition prompts Dutch protests

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Inside Europe: How racist is Black Pete?

Scuffles have broken out across the Netherlands over the fictional character Black Pete, who traditionally helps St. Nick distribute Christmas presents to children who have been good.

Protests took place in cities across the Netherlands on Saturday against the traditional Christmas character Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Banners denouncing the children's character appeared during demonstrations in the cities of Rotterdam, Eindhoven and Groningen.

Authorities in The Hague said riot police kept pro-Pete activists who love the custom away from protesters who say the character is patently racist. Dutch media also reported that soccer fans confronted a small group of anti-Pete protesters in the southern city of Eindhoven.

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Dutch national police said on Twitter they were committed to "a safe and undisturbed parade of Sinterklaas, both for participants, public and demonstrators."

Read more: Dutch court blocks bid to ban blackface Black Pete character

According to folklore, Black Pete is Moorish, originally from Spain, who helps the Dutch Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, distribute Christmas gifts to children. White people often daub their faces with black paint when they dress up to play the character, whose clownish appearance includes frizzy hair and large, red lips.

Tens of thousands welcomed a steamship carrying Sinterklaas into the seaside town of Zaandam on Saturday. Tradition calls for St. Nick to arrive in the Netherlands by ship from Spain rather than on a sleigh from the North Pole. Dutch television broadcast the arrival with dozens of Black Petes, their faces painted varying shades: from uniformly dark to smudged with dark streaks.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte had appealed for calm, saying: "I think society agrees on one thing: we grant children the magic of the Sinterklaas party."

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Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa Claus, has a contentious helper in the Netherlands. "Zwarte Piet" or Black Pete has a painted black face, bright red-colored lips and a curly Afro wig. While some Dutch children treasure the kind-hearted helper for his gifts and pranks, the UN has criticized the tradition as "racist" and a "throwback to slavery."

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kw/sms (AP, dpa)

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