The Dutch Saint Nicholas – known as Sinterklaas – traditionally appears alongside a helper known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) at seasonal celebrations in the Netherlands and Belgium, but there has been growing criticism of the practice by equal rights groups from across Europe in recent years.
Now Sweden's Afro-Swedish National Association has written to the Dutch embassy in Stockholm, to complain about a party planned on its premises on November 30th, at which Black Pete is set to appear.
"It is racist having this character, who is a white person who has put paint on their skin and has big red lips and an Afro. There are so many stereotypes here," Zakaria Zouhir who chairs the association told The Local.
"The Dutch embassy would never dream of holding something like this in say New York. They are misjudging Africans living in Sweden if they they think we won't react to this," he added.
Sinterklass and some helpers dressed as Black Pete in The Netherlands. Photo: TT
In his letter to the embassy, Zouhir argues: "From what we have learned the character typically speak Dutch with a stupid accent, and acts childlike and mischievous when performing making him more akin to a child than an adult. This of course is part of European racist generalizations applied to black people that used to be widespread but can no longer be made explicitly".
Karen Van Stegeren, who is Deputy Head of Mission at the Dutch embassy in Stockholm, said the party was being organized by a Dutch group run by volunteers that had been using a room at the embassy for parties for decades.
She confirmed that Zwarte Piet made annual appearances at events there.
Embassy staff are unable to take a position on debates like these, but Van Stegeren said she was "aware that these kind of discussions have already been going on in the Netherlands over the past two or three years".
She added that Zwarte Piet is "seen by children as the best part of the celebration, because he brings the presents. He is usually considered to be a really nice person and there are no negative connotations".
The Sinterklaas festival dates back to the 1600s and Zwarte Piet started appearing alongside the white bearded figure in the 1800s.
Some Dutch argue Black Pete is black because of the soot in the chimneys he climbs down to take gifts to children, while others have noted that his emergence coincided with the Dutch Empire's involvement in slavery at that time. Sweden also practiced slavery in the Caribbean during this period.
Zakaria Zouhir from Sweden's Afro-Swedish National Association. Photo: Private
On Wednesday, the Dutch embassy told The Local it had no plans to stop the controversial Sinterklass party from going ahead in 2014.
But Sweden's Afro-Swedish National Association said it would continue to put pressure on the embassy as well as the Swedish government to try and halt any events involving Zwarte Piet in Stockholm.
"Sweden has a history of slavery and this event is even taking place near Slussen where the ships carrying slaves used to come in," Zakaria Zouhir told The Local.
"We see this as about solidarity with all our African brothers and sisters," he added.