The character of Black Pete, usually portrayed by white people in black facepaint, frizzy wigs and prominent red lipstick, has sparked intense discussion – and sometimes violent clashes – in recent years.
Thousands have taken to the streets in The Hague and protests have been planned across the country.
A shrinking majority of Dutch people say there is no reason to change a holiday tradition they consider to be harmless fun.
The United Nations has repeatedly called on the Dutch government to rid the pre-Christmas festivities of any racist features, but the government has so far declined to take a stance.
Last week, police arrested four people in The Hague after they stormed a building where anti-Black Pete activists were gathered, smashing windows and throwing fireworks in an apparent attempt to intimidate them.
The “Kick Out Black Pete” movement cancelled several events throughout the country after the incident, but were still set to stage protests in six cities.
Authorities in Apeldoorn, which hosts the nationally televised arrival of St Nicholas, said all main roads into the city centre had been blocked to traffic, while visitors had to pass through special entrance gates to reach the celebrations.
A recent opinion poll showed 59 per cent of all Dutch wanted to keep “Zwarte Piet” in blackface, while 26 per cent said the tradition needed to be changed gradually. In 2011, when the protests started, only 7 per cent of the Dutch said Pete should change.
Since then, major cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam and the national public broadcaster have decided to ditch blackface in favour of Petes smeared with soot – from the chimneys they are said to go down to bring children their presents.
About 15 per cent of the 17.3 million population of the Netherlands, which was for centuries a major colonial power, are from ethnic minorities.
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