A United Nations body called on the Dutch government to reform the country's longstanding winter-time blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet (or "Black Pete") on grounds that it was offensive and reflected "negative stereotypes."

The ruling by the Geneva-based Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is not enforceable, but is bound to stir an already heated debate surrounding a custom that is both beloved and reviled. Ahead of Christmas, many people in the Netherlands celebrates the folkloric arrival of Zwarte Piet, a trickster figure who accompanies Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus. They do so by donning frizzy wigs, applying red paint on their lips and blackening their faces.

Most outsiders readily perceive this to be racist -- like minstrel shows, Zwarte Piet in part emerged from a history of subjugation and oppression where aping blackness carried very specific connotations. Many Dutch, though, are fiercely defensive about the practice, and offer a slew of arguments as to why no one should take offense to their winter-time habits. (WorldViews took these apart last year.)

But mounting opposition to the tradition, at least in its current form, from minority groups within the Netherlands have raised scrutiny around the rights and wrongs of Zwarte Piet. Last year, police arrested 90 demonstrators picketing a Sinterklaas celebration in the Dutch city of Gouda.

The U.N. committee advised the Dutch government to take measures that would address what critics consider offensive about Zwarte Piet:

Considering that even a deeply rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes, the Committee recommends that [the Netherlands] actively promote the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.

Realistically, this means actively encouraging those who want to dress up as Zwarte Piets to do so creatively -- not wearing blackface, for example.

But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte dismissed the recommendations, according to Reuters.

"Guys. Folk traditions, come on. What Christmas songs you should sing, how you celebrate Christmas and Easter – this isn't what politics is about," he told reporters in The Hague.