Six weeks before Americans celebrate Christmas, Sinterklaas comes to town. The Dutch Santa Claus travels by steamboat instead of sleigh and from Spain, not the North Pole. But the most different thing about him is his help.

Instead of elves, he has Black Pete — a character played by whites in blackface. Thousands of them started popping up over the weekend at children’s parades, schools and in living rooms across the Netherlands, like so many Al Jolsons.

But a wave of opposition to the beloved Dutch character of Black Pete is generating a fierce debate about political correctness in one of the world’s most socially liberal nations. A stunned country is watching as the uproar unleashes a barrage of death threats and vitriol during the most joyous time on the Dutch calendar.

The outbreak of hostilities on social media, on television talk shows, on urban sidewalks and in the court system here is highlighting the increasingly tense question of race in Europe — where minority-rights groups are decrying the rise of the far right and a rash of racist incidents is challenging the notion of the region as a bastion of progressive thought.

“We thought we lived in a post-racial society; this was not South Africa, not the United States, where you had old racial wounds to deal with,” said Erik van Muis­winkel, a Dutch comedian who is white and regularly plays Black Pete at the Netherlands’ Saint Nicholas festival. “But this is revealing a few ugly little things that have surprised us.”

In this country that has pioneered gay marriage and is famous for its marijuana-vending coffee shops, critics of Black Pete — a tradition dating back more than a century — have been around for decades. But the issue exploded this year after human rights advisers to the United Nations, responding to complaints from minority activists, challenged the Dutch government on the custom. One of them, Jamaican scholar Verene Shepherd, told Dutch television in October that “Black Pete is the return to slavery and has to stop.”

Emboldened opponents then sought to have Black Pete banned from the children’s parade in the largest Dutch city, Amsterdam. This month, they lodged the first legal challenge aimed at having depictions of the character deemed officially racist in the Dutch courts.

The campaign has touched a raw nerve. Many Dutch who adore Black Pete consider themselves social liberals and are deeply offended by the suggestion that they are racist. They describe the opposition as a small group of overly sensitive Afro-Caribbean descendants and reactionary whites who are trying to steal a Christmas fantasy from children. In a nation of 16.7 million, a three-week-old Facebook page defending Black Pete has surged past more than 2.1 million “likes.”

Although the vast majority of Black Pete defenders are mainstream Dutch, observers say the campaign in defense of the character is in danger of being hijacked by far-right nationalists.

The anti-immigrant party of Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders, who had largely trained his sights on Muslim and Eastern European immigrants, has stepped up to defend Black Pete as part of Dutch identity, comparing eradication of the character to banning “a white Christmas.” Suspected white supremacist groups have begun co-opting the image of Black Pete in racist street graffiti. In the Dutch town of Hoogezand-Sappemeer, officials sought to modify the character this year by having faces painted in a rainbow of colors in the annual celebration. But they backed down after receiving threatening phone calls.

In a move that heightened tensions further, opponents of Black Pete issued thinly veiled threats of disturbing the peace at celebrations commemorating the arrival of Santa and Black Pete over the weekend. One woman of Afro-
Caribbean descent sent a much-derided tweet: “why didn’t the Germans gas the Dutch people?”

Although the pro-Black Pete
Facebook page largely contains tempered defenses of the character, it is also peppered with bigoted rants. Meanwhile, the Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and e-mail addresses of many of those who have spoken out publicly against Black Pete have become clogged with offensive comments and even death threats.

“This is showing us the truth about racism in a place where some people had convinced themselves it didn’t exist,” said Quinsy Gario, a poet and radio commentator who was born in Curacao and is among the second- and third-generation Afro-Caribbean immigrants here who have largely pushed the opposition campaign. In 2011, he was detained by police for disturbing the peace at a holiday parade, where he held a sign and wore a shirt that said “Black Pete Is Racist.”

“They keep saying this is their tradition, but Black Pete is basically a Dutch Sambo,” he said.

Santa’s handler

Although the Dutch also commemorate Christmas on Dec. 25, the earlier celebration of Sinter­klaas is traditionally the main event. A white-bearded Saint Nick chugs into port each year with a group of Black Petes in mid-November, when the characters are heralded in national and local arrival celebrations. In the days leading up to the big gift-
giving night of Dec. 5 — eve of the feast day of Saint Nicholas — Dutch children stuff their shoes with treats for Santa’s horse and leave them by the fireplace in the hopes of scoring goodies.

The part of the legend that has Santa residing in Spain is linked to the Spanish crown’s former dominion over the Netherlands, historians say. It may also be tied to one of Saint Nick’s trademark treats for kids here: oranges, a once exotic fruit suggesting warm breezes in sun-drenched lands.

Characterizations of Black Pete have changed over the decades to become more politically correct, supporters say. In earlier decades, he was Santa’s menacing servant who, according to lore, carried bad children in a sack back to Spain.

But today, Black Petes largely wear elegant Renaissance dress and are pitched to Dutch children as being Santa’s handler, the guy who hangs around to make sure the doddering old man knows his naughty from his nice.

“In my youth, the white people dressing up like Black Pete used to talk strange and try to sound like black people, but not anymore,” said Robert Flos, an Amsterdam City Council member from the center-right VVD Party. “You could say that Black Pete has been emancipated.”

‘This is 2013, isn’t it?’

Yet opponents of Black Pete say they see a pattern that crosses borders in Europe. In most countries in the region, minorities tend to be far less organized politically and number fewer than, for example, African Americans or Hispanics in the United States. Minority rights activists in Europe say that as a result, discrimination based on skin color often goes unchallenged.

They cite a growing number of racially charged incidents in Western Europe. In Italy, Congolese-born Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, who is black, was likened this year to a maid and a prostitute by her political opponents, and bananas were thrown at her during a public appearance. French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is also black, was depicted in right-wing political posters as a rampaging gorilla. In Athens, authorities are trying to root out the marauding militias of the Golden Dawn Party, which has attacked ethnic minorities and immigrants.

Many Dutch bristle at the notion of throwing Black Pete into the same category. They point to the accounts of some historians who say he was inspired by exotically dressed black Moors rather than servants or the victims of the Dutch colonial slave trade. And, they note, some Dutch of African descent still partake in the tradition.

Yet most Black Pete defenders also say that over time, his depiction should keep changing to become more racially sensitive. Under pressure from opponents, for instance, officials in Amsterdam agreed this month to a series of concessions. Parade planners asked participants dressing up as Black Pete on Sunday to wear a variety of wigs, not just Afros, and to use a range of lipstick shades, not just the typical bright red.

“But, um, they really think that’s going to be enough?” Gario said. “I mean, this is 2013, isn’t it?”

Eva Oude Elferink contributed to this report.