Debate over Black Pete Christmas tradition is dividing Holland

Black Petes have provoked a national debate in Holland. Photo: ITV News

It's a tradition going back centuries - in the Netherlands and Belgium the end of November means the arrival of Sinterklaas and his band of happy helpers known as Black Petes.

Folklore has it they travel on a steamboat from Spain and on December 5th Sinterklaas dispatches his Zwarte Piets down the chimneys to deliver presents.

Every year hundreds of thousands fill the streets to welcome them - but now the tradition of the white man and his helpers with their faces painted black wearing Afro wigs has delivered a racism debate that is polarising Dutch society.

It may have lasted over the years but to watch lots of white men with heavily painted faces, red lips, and black curls is a distinctly disorienting experience.

Amsterdam artist Quinsy Gario is one of those who feels the Saint Nikolaus parade is outdated in 2013.

There's a white guy on a horse, and he is served by a lot black people. They're still jolly fellows, they still sing and dance, they're still acting a bit silly. And that's a stereotype.

His argument has had support from independent representatives of UN Human Rights Commission.

Verene Shepherd, who received complaints about the ceremony described it as racist and a throw back to slavery.

Sinterklaas with his companions the Black Petes. Credit: ITV News

She believed it should be abolished though the UN have distanced themselves from her comments. Others however took them very personally and Ms Shepherd has faced death threats and racial abuse.

But don't mention abolition to the hundreds of thousands who have filled the streets for years to greet the Black Petes and see them as a treasured custom.

A Facebook page set up in support received 2 million likes within a couple of days.

A young girl waves to a steamboat with Black Petes on-board. Credit: ITV News

That the debate has become so toxic has made many question what it reflects in the supposedly pragmatic Dutch culture at a time when support for far right parties is on the rise and the politicians are being very careful about what they say.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte stating, “Black Pete is black. That’s that."