Sinterklaas, the Dutch inspiration for Santa Claus, does things differently. He travels to the Netherlands by boat, not by flying reindeer. He lives in Spain, not the North Pole. He is white-bearded, but not necessarily fat or jolly. Perhaps of greatest importance to his clients, Sinterklaas always delivers three weeks early--on the eve of St. Nicholas, which this year is Sunday.

These are among the many Christmas traditions here, but much more remarkable is that Sinterklaas is always accompanied by one or more dark-complexioned helpers known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter.

Black Peter has for centuries terrified Dutch children as the ultimate boogeyman of nightmares and parental threats. He is Sinterklaas's dark alter ego, his enforcer and his bagman. If you have been a good child, Black Peter will give you goodies from his bag. If you have been a naughty child, Black Peter will put you in his sack and take you away--to Spain!

This tradition, and the crude black face that the Dutch paint on to impersonate Black Peter, has made some Dutch people uncomfortable in recent years. In a socially progressive, increasingly multicultural country, a new look at a cherished tradition has elicited soul-searching.

A few years ago, community and cultural activists began demanding that Black Peter be eliminated, or replaced by White Peter. Joop Lahaise of the Anti-Discrimination Forum here told the Reuters news agency that people have complained that "Black Peter is a stereotype of a black person and he represents all negative traits." But such is the persistence and race-blind appeal of this icon that he appears to have survived the onslaught.

"For a couple of years we tried having yellow, blue and green Peters, but there was so much protest, and then so little interest, we dropped the idea," said Henk Ferdinand van der Kroon, mastermind of a vast operation that sends teams of Sinterklaases and Black Peters to private homes and office parties during the weeks leading up to Dec. 5.

Jan Prinowees and Herman Tebbes were doing their Sinterklaas and Black Peter routine in front of a Foot Locker store on Amsterdam's busiest pedestrian shopping street the other day. Children of all colors flocked to their call and readily took bounty from Black Peter's bag of candies and "peppernuts," little spice cookies.

"People say, 'Why Black Peter?' I say, 'Why not Black Peter?' " said Marvin Tuur, 31, a bartender born in Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America where the population is almost entirely black-skinned. Tuur said the Sinterklaas-Black Peter tradition is still very strong in Suriname. "A White Peter wouldn't work," he said. "What's scary about that?"

Dutch novelist Nelleke Noordervliet insisted that it has been generations since Black Peter was even scary. "He's not fearsome at all. He's the friend of the children. It's Sinterklaas who is strict and just and god-like, while Black Peter has evolved into a kind of clown."

Noordervliet said, "There are PC [politically correct] voices that say we ought to have White Peters and not Black Peters, that it stigmatizes the black community, but they are very lonely voices."

There have been some ugly incidents in recent years, including attacks on Sinterklaas by young teenagers in some of Amsterdam's Moroccan immigrant neighborhoods: jeering jostling, candy-stealing from Black Peter's bag and shoe-throwing to knock off Sinterklaas's bishop's miter.

Police are now staking out many public appearances by Sinterklaas and his Black Peters, van der Kroon said. "The police don't want any incident with St. Nicholas. It's the jewel in our tradition," he said.

In Muslim communities in Dutch cities, the problem is not really Black Peter. It is Sinterklaas, perceived as a Christian infidel and a Westernizing threat by some parents.

Although he has become a secular, even commercial figure, Sinterklaas still bears the mark of his religious ancestry. In this Calvinist country, he wears a catholic miter and clerical robes. The 4th century St. Nicholas came from Myra, in present-day Turkey, and was known as the patron saint of children as well as sailors.

According to a 14th century legend, when Dutch sailors saw statues of St. Nicholas guarding harbors in Spain, they brought home the incorrect news that he was a Spanish saint. Moors, black-skinned Arabs from North Africa who ruled all or part of Spain for more than 700 years, are thought to be the inspiriation for his helpers.

Although Black Peter seems to be firmly ensconced in the Dutch Christmas firmament, according to Sinterklaas enthusiasts a far more sinister force is at work: Santa Claus. The globalizing power of the American-style Santa is eroding the traditions, abetted by Dutch merchants understandably eager to extend the shopping season another three weeks and children just as eager to get a second round of presents on Dec. 25.

"Father Christmas," as van der Kroon calls him, "is just a decoration in a shopping mall"--and will never catch on in the Netherlands. He said Sinterklaas Central, his organization, had offered classic Santas for hire and gotten no response--except from Japan.

Sales personnel tell a different story. "Nobody pays much attention to St. Nicholas eve these days. It's all Christmas," said a clerk at the huge Bijenkorf emporium on Amsterdam's Dam Square. Several floors below, however, more than a hundred children gathered wide-eyed around Sinterklaas and his three (female) Black Peters.

On Sunday evening, families and friends across the Netherlands will gather to repeat the homespun rituals of Sinterklaas's impending arrival. The emphasis is not on the gift, known as the "surprise," but on its creative wrapping and mostly on the poem that every gift-giver must compose (as Sinterklaas's ghostwriter) for the recipient.

The poem is meant to be humorous and telling--a chance to tease and embarrass loved ones. "It gives us the opportunity to tell the truth in a gentle way to your family and friends," said Noordervliet. She's written poems that draw attention to her husband's eating habits, and wrapped his gift in a papier-mache reproduction of French fries.

"When our eldest daughter was 16 or 17, she had a boyfriend we didn't approve of," Noordervliet recalled. "She was always saying how wonderful everything was at their house, how nice and friendly his family was. In my poem, I mocked her attraction to her future parents-in-law, which they of course did not become."