Sinterklaas, a legendary figure based on the patron saint of children Saint Nicholas, arrives in Belgium and The Netherlands by boat from Spain every year in late-November. He is portrayed as an elderly white man, who rides a white horse through parades across the countries and gives presents and candy to children who have been good in the past year.
Sinterklaas is accompanied by many helpers called Zwarte Piet in Dutch, in English often translated as ‘Black Pete’. Hundreds of adults and children dress up as him, wearing blackface and black curly wigs, painting large red lips, usually also wearing large golden earrings.
The story goes that the Black Petes would carry around Sinterklaas’ sacks of presents for the good children, and when the sacks were empty, fill them back up with children who had been naughty over the year and return with them to Spain.
The exact origins of the tradition are vague, but most historians agree that it comes from a time when The Netherlands (Belgium was still a part of The Netherlands at the time) was still deeply engaged in slave trade.
However, most children nowadays have grown up with the explanation that Zwarte Piet is black because he comes through the chimney to deliver the children’s presents.
For several years, the perceived racism of Zwarte Piet has been a topic of discussion, resulting in the Roetpiet, (Soot Pete) whose face is not entirely black, but partly covered in black smudges or soot, as a result of entering homes through the chimneys.