THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS – Black Pete, the jolly sidekick of the Dutch Saint Nicholas, is finally getting a face-lift after years of bitter debate, including death threats against those calling for change.
An Amsterdam court’s ruling in July that Pete — traditionally dressed in a gaudy medieval costume with a blackened face, red lips and an Afro wig — is a “negative stereotype” encouraged many to try to change the deeply rooted custom.
“It’s the beginning of change, it will continue for years to come because more and more people agree it should change but it’s going to take a long time,” said historian Gabor Kozijn, author of a study on Black Pete for The Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage.
With less than two months before Dutch kids’ favorite day, Dec. 5, when Saint Nicholas and Pete hand out presents, the debate has reached fever pitch, with Black Pete’s defenders refusing to admit there is anything racist about the playful character.
In Gouda, where Saint Nicholas and dozens of Petes will “arrive” on Nov. 15 with a gift-filled boat from Spain in a national event broadcast live on television, the mayor on Tuesday decided to introduce some new colors.
Besides a number of Black Petes, there will also be “Cheese Petes” with yellow faces and “Stroopwafel Petes” with striped, light brown faces resembling the traditional Dutch syrup biscuit of the same name.
“There is no simple way to find a solution that everyone can identify with,” said Gouda Mayor Milo Schoenmaker.
Gouda’s Black Petes “changed several years ago to dark brown without stereotypical big red lips and earrings,” the city hall added.
Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan has said that a “substantial” number of this year’s Petes will not be black but will have some “soot marks” on their faces, ostensibly from climbing down the chimney.
And a White Pete will for the first time be present during a daily televised “news bulletin” on Saint Nicholas’ activities.
Dutch shops will have fewer Black Petes this year, although discount retail chain Hema in August denied rumors that it planned to remove him entirely by next year.
Customers at supermarket Albert Heijn will have different colored Petes to choose from, including black: “Saint Nicholas is for everyone,” the chain said in a statement.
Despite compromising on Black Pete, the two chains are being threatened with boycotts.
Many people in Netherlands do not want to see the national tradition changed simply because what they consider a minority of people see it as racist.