AMSTERDAM - Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in winter are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of St. Nicholas' helpers have their faces painted black, wear Afro wigs and have thick red lips - in short, a racist caricature of a black person.
The overwhelming majority of Dutch are fiercely devoted to the holiday tradition of "Zwarte Piet" - whose name means "Black Pete" - and insist he's a harmless fictional figure who doesn't represent any race. But a growing number are questioning whether "Zwarte Piet" should be given a makeover or banished from the holiday scene, seeing him as a blight on the nation's image as a bulwark of tolerance.
"There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think," says Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam. She said that historically her office received only one or two complaints per year, but the number jumped to more than 100 last year, and will escalate much further this year.
"It's not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining," she said, referring to people descended from the former Dutch colonies that once traded in slavery. "It's all kinds of Dutch people."
There are various versions of the history of St. Nicholas - "Sinterklaas" in Dutch - and of Zwarte Piet, who made his debut as an African servant in an 1850 book.
"Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist," said Silversmith. "But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet."
The debate comes after a decade in which the Dutch have rolled back many aspects of their famed tolerance policies, and in which anti-immigrant sentiment has risen sharply. Zwarte Piet is frequently defended as part of Dutch cultural heritage, and those who don't like it are often bluntly invited to leave the country. Many Dutch say Pete's black face derives from the soot he picked up climbing down chimneys to deliver presents - although that hardly explains the frizzy hair and big lips.
In the U.S., stereotypical black makeup - called blackface - was phased out in the civil-rights era. But in Britain, a TV show featuring blackface lasted until the late 1970s before the practice became taboo. Blackface crops up in other European countries from time to time, such as in a theater performance in Germany this year, but it's only in the Netherlands that it's institutionalized in the form of Black Pete.
A sea-change may have occurred here during last year's festivities, when four men were arrested for wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Zwarte Piet is Racism" outside a store during an appearance of Sinterklaas - and charged with protesting without a permit.
Police threw one, Quinsy Gario, to the ground, and kneed him in the back repeatedly as they dragged him away, though he offered no resistance. A video of the incident was placed on YouTube, and the slogan began trending.
Although police were later found to have acted wrongly, many parents still felt that it was inappropriate to protest during the holiday or when children were present. Gario responds that Dutch people won't discuss the matter the rest of the year, so his protest was the only way to broach the subject.
This year the debate has clearly escalated.
For the first time, a white politician has openly challenged the tradition: "The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet," Amsterdam councilwoman Andree van Es said in an interview with newspaper Het Parool this week. "It's time it continues without Zwarte Piet."
Two major chains of stores, Blokker and V&D, now use images of kids with ash-smudged cheeks in their sales catalogues, rather than Petes with black faces. And in a first this weekend, a documentary laying out arguments against Zwarte Piet aired on national television.
The county's most widely read news blog, "GeenStijl" launched a blistering campaign against Black Pete- surprising because GeenStijl prides itself on being tasteless and politically incorrect, and had mocked Gario after the 2011 incident.
"Zwarte Piet is nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave, fine-tuned to indoctrinate schoolchildren into the finer points of racism," it wrote in its first posting in a series. "The sooner we get rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won't look like idiots to the rest of the world."
While the author, who uses the pen name Johnny Quid, uses the satirical blog also to skewer Black Pete opponents, he has deeply antagonized the blog's mostly conservative-leaning reader base.
Despite the growing anti-Pete movement, the tradition finds a strong bedrock of support in mainstream Dutch society, meaning it's unlikely to disappear any time soon.
In 2008, a Museum in Eindhoven called off an anti-Pete exhibition after protests. The foreign artists received death threats. And when Victoria's Secret model Doutzen Kroes said on national television in 2009 that Zwarte Piet is the one thing that has ever made her feel ashamed of being Dutch, the studio audience laughed at her.
Jan Pronk, a leftist politician who once served as the U.N. envoy to Sudan, dismissed her viewpoint on the show. "These are very old traditions," he said, "I don't think it's so bad."
A Facebook page with the slogan "Zwarte Piet is Racism" has become a major platform for debate this year, though moderators have begun removing hate speech and personal threats.
One organization reinforcing the Zwarte Piet image is educational broadcaster NTR, which also airs "Sesame Street" in the Netherlands. It has developed a popular fake news program for kids, devoted to the doings of the wise white Sinterklaas and his many bumbling Petes, all with the traditional blackface look.
The program starts in early November and airs nightly until kids open their presents on Dec. 5. (Although the Dutch Sinterklaas is the source of the American Santa Claus, Christmas is a separate holiday in the Netherlands, where the present-opening tradition happens three weeks earlier.) The show draws more than a million viewers in a country of 16 million, and its spokeswoman, Helen Albada, said she was unaware of any complaints about its depiction of Zwarte Piet.
Several years ago, the broadcaster experimented with a story line in which the Petes were turned different colors after sailing through a magical rainbow. That drew thousands of complaints, in part because the backlash against immigration was cresting at the time: Fans said changing Pete was sacrificing Dutch cultural heritage to the forces of multiculturalism.
"We didn't intend that either," Albada said. "Kids don't see Pete as black, it's the adults that give it a racial meaning."
In a recent editorial, one columnist for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper questioned whether the country really is as tolerant as it likes to style itself. He deplored the fact that even as the U.S. has re-elected a black president, not a single member of the Netherlands' new Cabinet is of non-Dutch ancestry.
"That's because we, unlike other countries, have become completely colorblind," Bas Heijne wrote ironically. "We don't need a black minister, let alone a black prime minister: We have Zwarte Piet."