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Dutch unamused as St Nicholas' black helper goes multi-culti By Rohan Minogue

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dpa German Press Agency
Published: Friday December 1, 2006

Amsterdam- Dutch children are agog. The days leading up to the festival of Sinterklaas are filled with feverish expectation of the gifts they anticipate on December 5. Every morning, if they've been good, there's something sweet in the shoe they've put out especially. But this year the more traditional among their parents are also in a state of excitement.

Sinterklaas - St Nicholas - arrived from Spain by ship laden with gifts in mid-November.

Since then he has been touring the country dressed in bishop's raiment with mitre and crook, attended by "Zwarte Piete" - Black Petes - who dash about dressed in tights and velvet knickerbockers dishing out sweets to the children and clowning about.

It is the black-faced Petes that are the problem in multicultural Holland.

For some years now Amsterdam, with its large non-Dutch ethnic population, has had Petes of all colours. There are green, yellow and blue Petes among the traditional black-faced versions.

Most provincial Dutch pay little heed to what goes on in their capital, avoiding it as a place of sin and traffic jams, so the change in the tradition passed largely unnoticed.

But this year the national public broadcaster NOS has done the same on its daily youth programme, Jeugdjournaal.

The official explanation is that Sinterklaas' boat passed through a rainbow on its way from Spain, and that the colours rubbed off on the Petes.

The Telegraaf newspaper is not happy. "Multi-coloured Petes cause confusion," the conservative daily headlined, reporting that not only were the children confused, but also the parents were angry.

It said e-mails charging the broadcaster with "systematically undermining a long-standing Dutch tradition" were raining down on Sinterklaas websites.

The Jeugdjournaal writers were carefully avoiding the word "black" and referring simply to Pete, the Telegraaf fulminated.

Aje Boschhuizen, the editor responsible for the broadcasts, rejected the criticism as "total nonsense."

"This is not some politically correct statement," he said.

Asked whether the change was permanent, he declined to be specific. "Pete is just Sinterklaas' merry little helper. His colour is unimportant," Boschhuizen said.

The tradition in its current form is in any case not as long-standing as many Dutch would like to believe. Until relatively recently, Sinterklaas had just one Zwarte Piet to help him distribute his sweets and presents, whereas now there are any number of them.

According to one version, Canadian troops in their ignorance corrupted the tradition when they liberated the country from the Germans in 1945.

Another has it that rising prosperity and the superabundance of goodies made it imperative for Sinterklaas to introduce a more efficient distribution network.

Precisely who Zwarte Piet is supposed to be is not clear. The Dutch link with Spain - the Netherlands cast off the Spanish yoke in 1648 - suggests that he is a Moorish servant to the bishop.

Other versions say he is the devil tamed, or a throwback to the pagan gods of the pre-Christian era.

Whatever his provenance, he is now part of the ill-tempered debate over the integration and assimilation of the large Muslim minority in the Netherlands.

In the Transvaal part of The Hague, where the population is around 85-per-cent immigrant, the traditional event held on the streets and squares has had to be called off.

Organizer Joke van den Boomen said aggression towards the volunteers helping with the children's events had increased over the past two years and she was now on the point of giving up.

"I've long said that if it comes to this, I'll put a stop to it," Van den Boomen said. The festivities had to be moved to a sports centre on safety grounds.

In the provincial town of Beverwijk to the north of Amsterdam, where Sinterklaas' helpers are all traditional black, a three-year-old boy encountering his first Zwarte Piet was fearful.

"He's a bit scary," he said, before grabbing his sweets and making off.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency