Should Dutch ‘Black Pete’ character still be part of Christmas in Canada?

Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in winter are often surprised to see that the Dutch version of St. Nicholas' …Christmas tradition in the Netherlands would seem pretty familiar to most Canadians: A fatherly red-robed man called Sinterklaas brings presents to good children.

But a distinctive Dutch variation has become increasingly problematic both in the Netherlands and Dutch communities in places like Canada.

Instead of industrious little elves, St. Nicolas is accompanied by a helper named Zwarte Piet, Dutch for Black Peter, a clownish man in blackface.

Minstrel shows and other blackface portrayals been taboo in mainstream culture for decades because of their racist imagery. Even supposedly innocent tributes to black figures trigger a backlash, such as Toronto Maple Leafs centre Tyler Bozak's recent Halloween appearance as Michael Jackson.

[ Related: Criticism of 'Black Pete' grows amid immigration debate ]

Black Pete remains a regular fixture of Dutch family Christmas tradition. But he's an increasingly uneasy one.

The Toronto Star noted that at a recent Sinterklaas public events in the city, Black Pete's blackface and afro wig were toned down to some black smudging from the soot picked up as he slides down the chimney on Dec. 5 to deliver presents. Apparently Dutch Santa doesn't like to get his red robe dirty.

But at private functions, such as one at the Bata Shoe Museum last weekend, Black Pete showed up in full blackface and bright red-painted lips, the Star said.

"We have to respect other people's feelings," Martin van Denzen, president of Toronto's Dutch-Canadian Association who frequently plays Sinterklaas, told the Star. "Do we have to put the wig on? No, but it's part of the getup.

"When we have a St. Nicolas party for our own community, we have Black Peters. No two ways about it … the kids expect it. And for the older people, you should see their faces, the memories it brings back."

Black Petes started out as Sinterklaas's entourage of Moorish helpers from Spain whose other job was to kidnap naughty kids and take them back there. He once carried a rod to threaten bad children with beatings but he's evolved into a mischievous, fun-loving character, the Star said.

It may be nostalgic for old Hollanders but the Black Pete tradition increasingly has come under fire, sometimes associated with the Netherlands' prominent role in the slave trade.

In a commentary in the Guardian, Siji Jabbar said the tradition goes beyond donning blackface.

"The character must speak poor Dutch with a stupid accent, and must act childlike and mischievous when performing," he wrote.

"At schools across the country, children sing songs referring to the skin tone and character of the black servant '...even if I'm black as coal I mean well…,' and there are other old songs about Zwarte Piet in which he's made out to be a little bit stupid, a little bit clumsy, more akin to a child than an adult, the same generalizations previously applied to black people, but which can no longer be made explicitly."

The Dutch have debated for years whether Black Pete is racist, said the Christian Science Monitor, a debate that's grown as the Netherlands have become more multicultural.

[ Related: A traditional Sinterklaas debate: Is 'Black Pete' racist? ]

Some have suggested going with chimney soot instead of full blackface and losing the demeaning accent.

"I have also argued for just calling them Pieten instead of Zwarte Pieten," actor Bram van der Vlugt, who played Sinterklaas on TV for years, told the Monitor. "The tradition has been modified before."