Anti-racism campaigners are protesting in cities across the Netherlands as Dutch children anticipate the annual arrival of St Nicholas and a blackface character who traditionally accompanies him.
The character of “Black Pete”, usually portrayed by white people in black face paint wearing frizzy wigs and prominent red lipstick, has provoked intense discussion, and sometimes violent clashes, in recent years.
Campaigners against racism say exposure to such imagery is hurtful to black people and damaging to children. But a shrinking majority of Dutch people say there is no reason to change a holiday tradition they consider to be harmless fun.
The UN has repeatedly called on the Dutch government to rid pre-Christmas festivities of any racist elements but it has so far declined to take a stance.
Last week, police arrested four people in The Hague after they stormed a building where anti-Black Pete activists were gathered, smashing windows and throwing fireworks in an apparent attempt to intimidate them.
The “Kick Out Black Pete” movement cancelled several events throughout the country after the incident, but were still due to stage protests in six cities, including The Hague and Groningen, on Saturday.
Authorities in Apeldoorn, which hosts the nationally televised arrival of St Nicholas, said all main roads into the city centre had been blocked to traffic, while visitors had to pass through special entrance gates to reach the celebrations.
A recent opinion poll showed 59% of Dutch people wanted to keep “Zwarte Piet” in blackface, while 26% said the tradition needed to be changed gradually. In 2011, when the protests started, only 7% wanted the tradition to change.
Since then, major cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam and the national public broadcaster have decided to ditch blackface in favour of figures smeared with soot – from the chimneys they are said to go down to bring children their presents.
About 15% of the 17.3 million population of the Netherlands, which was for centuries a major colonial power, are from minority ethnic groups.