'Black Pete' protested as Dutch children hail St Nicholas

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Anti-racism campaigners held protests in cities across the Netherlands on Saturday as Dutch children hailed the annual arrival of St. Nicholas and a blackface character who traditionally accompanies him.

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Parades in many cities were marked by a large police presence, after scuffles between groups who see “Black Pete” as racist and those who cherish the character as a fun holiday tradition led to arrests last year.

Usually portrayed by white people in black face paint wearing frizzy wigs and prominent red lipstick, Black Pete has sparked 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 what they see as a harmless tradition.

A pageant in the city of Apeldoorn depicting the arrival of St Nicholas was broadcast on national television.

Edwin Wagensveld, leader of the Dutch wing of the anti-Muslim PEGIDA movement, was arrested in Apeldoorn by police after refusing to go to an area designated for demonstrations. He was dressed as Black Pete.

The United Nations has repeatedly called for any racist features to be eradicated from the pre-Christmas festivities but the Dutch government 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 canceled several events throughout the country after the incident, but still held protests in six cities, including The Hague and Groningen, on Saturday.

The rally in The Hague attracted a few hundred protesters, holding “Black Pete is racism” signs and chanting “The Netherlands should be ashamed”.

In Dutch folklore, St. Nicholas travels once a year from Spain on a steamboat laden with presents. The appearance of his sidekick derives from a 19th century story by children’s author Jan Schenkman that was illustrated with pictures of a dark-skinned Spanish Moor.

A recent opinion poll showed 59% of all Dutch 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% of the Dutch said Pete should change.

Since then, major cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam and the national public broadcaster have decided to ditch blackface in favor of Petes 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 ethnic minorities.

Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Catherine Evans