The Netherlands’ highest court has refused to get involved in the national debate around “Black Pete” – the country’s traditional sidekick to Saint Nicholas.
Black Pete is traditionally played by a white man in black face make-up, wearing a curly wig and large, red-painted mouth
While opponents call it a racist stereotype, many Dutch see the enormously popular tradition as harmless fun.
According to the folklore, Saint Nicholas arrived in the Netherlands in mid-November, accompanied by his servant Black Pete.
Some historians say the tradition has its roots in a 17th century trend that saw wealthy Amsterdam families keeping a black house slave.
SBS correspondent Kerry Skyring said it’s a character that has incited much debate over the years.
He said recent research suggests many Dutch are still in favour of keeping the figure in Christmas celebrations.
“There was a survey last year which suggested 92 per cent of Dutch don’t perceive Black Pete as racist or associated with slavery and around 90 per cent don’t want to change his appearance,” he said.
“Now they are fairly surprising figures. And there was a support Black Pete Facebook page started and almost overnight it attracted two million fans.
“The debate has at times though turned nasty with protesters against the figure being attacked and a man being arrested for simply wearing a T-Shirt simply saying Black Pete is racism.”
The Netherlands highest administrative court, the Council of State, did not make a ruling on whether the figure of Black Pete was discriminatory.
However, the Council did overturn a previous court ruling that the Amsterdam municipality should not have allowed last year’s festive arrival of Saint Nicholas in the city as it promoted negative stereotypes of black people.
Council of State president Jaap Polak ruled that Amsterdam’s mayor is not empowered to take the issue into account when granting permits for the celebrations.
“This means also that the administrative jurisdiction, who as the highest administrative authority has to screen the decisions such as these decisions of the Mayor, can and will not answer this question, how unsatisfactory this may be for the parties,” he said.
The Christmas tradition of Saint Nicholas exists in many European countries, including Austria and Germany but it’s only in the Netherlands and Belgium that he’s accompanied by black helpers.
Some campaigners have suggested the traditional Black Pete be substituted for a helper with a blue or rainbow-coloured face.
Margo Morrison, the Dutch author of a book called “No More Slavery”, said while she understood the tradition is important, she questioned whether many Dutch are aware of the history behind the tradition.
“One can find that this is a nice tradition that is going on for long time, however there is the history behind this,” she said.
“A tradition of repression, murders that were committed by white people against black people. So you see celebrations of people jumping around, having fun and laughing but who ever asked Black Pete if he finds that nice?”