(MENAFN - AFP) A Facebook petition supporting a Dutch Christmas character called "Black Pete" on Wednesday hit a million 'likes', revealing the liberal nation's attachment to a beloved figure the UN has warned may be racist.
Anger over the issue has swept the Netherlands after a UN human rights body said it was assessing whether "Zwarte Piet", who accompanies Saint Nicholas during a traditional children's festival before Christmas, is racist.
The character, who arrives on a gift-filled boat from Spain, is typically decked out in a gaudy medieval costume and afro wig, with his face painted black and lips red, prompting criticism of racial stereotyping.
Opponents say the character recalls when Dutch colonists exploited slaves, notably in the Caribbean colonies of Suriname and Curacao, while supporters are offended at the suggestion that a character so central to Dutch culture could be racist.
The debate comes up every year, but now it is particularly bitter after the Jamaican chair of a committee at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Verene Shepherd, bluntly told Dutch television that "the practice must stop".
"The working group cannot understand that why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop," she told the Eenvandaag show on Tuesday.
"As a black person, I feel that if I was living in the Netherlands I would object to it," she said.
Her Geneva-based committee at the UNHCHR sent a letter to the Dutch government after they heard that "the character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens" and asked for further information, Dutch media reported last week.
The Dutch give each other gifts, allegedly distributed by Saint Nicholas -- a Turkish bishop wearing a long red gown and mitre who resembles Father Christmas -- and Black Pete, on December 5 and then also celebrate Christmas on December 24-25, but without gifts.
'What is wrong with one Santa Claus?'
Shepherd angered the Dutch further by suggesting they should adopt a US-style "Santa Claus" instead.
"What is wrong with one Santa Claus, why do you have to have two Santa Clauses?" said Shepherd, who is due in the Netherlands next month to witness the arrival of Saint Nicholas and Black Pete first-hand.
The Dutch are also divided on the issue, whatever colour they might be, but there's near-universal agreement that those who do not understand Dutch culture should not get involved in the thorny debate.
"Black Pete is a chimney sweep and Saint Nicholas is a Turk and they live together in Spain and that's what we celebrate in the Netherlands - it's just the best integration party ever!" said one Facebook commentator.
"Note to UN: isn't there a war or famine or genocide going on somewhere where you could better bring your pressure to bare (sic)?" said another one of the 1,033,669 'likes' garnered in less than 24 hours.
A Dutch Facebook page called "Black Pete is racism" had 7,166 'likes' at the same time.
Amsterdam city hall held a public hearing last week during which 21 complaints about Black Pete were filed, calling on the Dutch capital to revoke the permit for this year's festival.
Mayor Eberhard van der Laan is to rule on the permit in early November.
But supporters called for the Saint Nicholas festival to go ahead, arguing that it has been part of a Dutch tradition as far back as the 16th century, with the Black Petes first appearing around the 1850s.
In a survey of 10,000 people published by the popular broadsheet De Telegraaf last weekend, some 96 percent asked for a stop to the debate over Black Pete.
Some 66 percent said they would prefer that the entire Saint Nicholas festival be dropped rather than stripping it of the Black Pete character.