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Dutch Santa Squabble

'Tis the season to be jolly. But an intensifying clash of Christmas cultures has left some Dutch, who celebrate their unique Sinterklaas holiday this weekend, in a not so merry mood.

They're struggling to hang on to Holland's legendary version of St. Nick, who brings candy and toys to children on the eve of St. Nicholas, which this year is on Sunday. But Sinterklaas' politically incorrect helpers, the Moorish "Black Petes" played by whites in blackface and curly wigs, have angered many Dutch.

Meanwhile, more and more Dutch are finding the commercial popularity of Santa Claus hard to resist.

The number of people celebrating the Dec. 5 holiday has dropped, from 77-percent in 1983 to 52-percent in 1997, according to Jan de Bas, author of a new book, Sinterklaas Can Stay.

Last year, Sinterklaas made a small gain when 58-percent of households joined in, said Frits Booy of the National St. Nicholas Committee, which has been crusading against the influence of Santa Claus for years.

But that may have been just a blip on the screen. Fewer Dutch families seem willing to write traditional Sinterklaas poems to one another a hallmark of the holiday opting instead for simpler American-style gift swapping a few weeks later on Dec. 25, which used to be mainly a family feast day.

"People have less time and less energy," Booy said. "They'd rather just give each other gifts on Christmas Day. Then they're off the hook for Sinterklaas. It's a question of priorities. Most people live hard and fast, focused on themselves. With Sinterklaas, you focus on others."

Competition from Santa isn't Sinterklaas' only problem. Critics have turned up the heat against the Black Petes, saying they perpetuate negative stereotypes of minorities.

People living in immigrant neighborhoods in Amsterdam aren't amused at their exaggerated hair and facial features, and some schools have demanded the Black Petes lose their wigs and makeup before handing out candy in classrooms.

Eyebrows were raised when children were taught how to paint their own faces black at a recent Black Pete exhibition at Rotterdam's Museum of History. But museum spokeswoman Annewien Mol, who called a community meeting to explain, said most people seemed to understand that Black Petes reflect tradition, not prejudice.

The in the original legend, Sinterklaas and his helper Pete are on horseback and land on the roofs of Dutch homes. Unlike the American Santa, it is Pete who wiggles his way down the chimney to deliver presents, which he puts in children's shoes. As the story goes, the soot sticks to his skin making him appear black.

"Black Petes are a part of Dutch culture, and that's what we're celebrating," she said. "There's a very small percentage of people mostly whites still making a fuss over it."

Bert Jansen, a practicing Black Pete for 30 years, said people also have suggested painting Pete a variety of colors. But, he declared: "I'll nevr be Green Pete. The tradition calls for a Black Pete, and that's what there should be."

"It's a real Dutch tradition, a family tradition that brings everyone together," Jansen said. "Some people say it's too old-fashioned, but that's what makes it magical."

But author De Bas says Sinterklaas needs a makeover if he wants to win the popularity contest against plump and jolly Santa. With his red bishop's hat, ornate staff and white horse, Sinterklaas comes off stiffer and more old-fashioned than Santa.

"Sinterklaas is a bit out of touch with today's culture," he said.

That may be so, but in the United States, at least, the two are being teamed up in a CBS Christmas special, Santa and Pete on Sunday at 9 p.m. EST. The show, starring James Earl Jones and Hume Cronyn, recounts how Pete, Santa's little-known partner, saves Christmas.

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