AMSTERDAM -- Thousands of families Saturday welcomed the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus in the northern city of Gronigen, as hundreds gathered in Amsterdam to protest at the presence of his assistant Black Peter, whom they called a racist stereotype.
In Dutch Christmastime tradition, Sinterklaas -- St. Nicholas -- is accompanied on his holiday rounds by Zwarte Piet, his black helper. The role is usually played by a white person in blackface, with a frizzy wig, large gold earrings and exaggerated thick red lips.
Some 50,000 children and their parents welcomed Sinterklass as he arrived by steamboat in Gronigen, in what the city administration described as a "very sociable" event. The festivities end on Dec. 5.
Earlier this month, an Amsterdam court ruled that Sinterklass may be accompanied by his black assistant during the annual parade, despite criticism that the Black Peter figure could be considered a racist symbol.
The court said the event does not endanger public order, while sidestepping the racism accusations.
A fierce debate has emerged over the tradition of the helpers. While some black residents of Holland find the depiction offensive, the majority of Dutch say the Santa's helpers are a beloved part of a children's festival.
Verene Shepard, the head of a working group on people of African descent at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called for an end to the tradition.
She told Dutch TV news program EEN Vandaag last month: "The working group cannot understand why it is that the people in The Netherlands cannot see that it is a throwback to slavery." Organizers said they would try to defuse the situation, with this year's Black Peters not donning golden earrings, and some Zwarten Pieten even dispensed with the large, curly wigs, while many parents also painted their children's faces in various colors.