The Netherlands is celebrating the arrival of Saint Nicholas, the gift-bearing patron saint of children, amid a partial coronavirus lockdown that forced the cancellation of traditional festivities in many towns and cities.

The Dutch celebrate who they call Sinterklaas on December 5 by giving gifts to children, but according to tradition the saint arrives in the country weeks earlier during what is usually a nationwide party.

In recent years, there have also been protests over the celebrations by activists over Sinterklaas’ helper, Black Pete, who is often portrayed by white people in blackface make-up.

Black Pete
Someone dressed as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, the controversial sidekick of Saint Nicholas (AP)

Opponents call Black Pete a racist caricature, while supporters argue he is a harmless children’s figure and part of Dutch tradition.

A nationally televised arrival celebration went ahead on Saturday without the usual crowds of thousands of children and their parents amid a partial lockdown in the Netherlands aimed at reining in coronavirus infections.

Other towns and cities held online events and at least one town organised a drive-through celebration where children could see Sinterklaas from the socially distanced safety of cars.

In neighbouring Belgium, the saint’s official welcome in the port city of Antwerp was also banned, though the government said in a tongue-in-cheek letter that Nicholas would not have to quarantine after arriving in Belgium from Spain, where he lives, and would also be able to walk on rooftops in order to drop gifts into chimneys even during curfew hours.

Black Pete protester
A woman wears a badge with a text reading ‘Black Pete Is Racism’ (AP)

Belgian government ministers, however, cautioned St Nicholas to “always respect distancing, wash hands regularly and wear a face mask”, despite his long white beard.

Anti-Black Pete activists in the Netherlands planned a demonstration in Breda, one of several Dutch cities that have replaced Black Pete with a Grey Pete.

Breda is not holding an official arrival ceremony for the saint.

For members of the “Kick Out Black Pete” group, the change does not go far enough.

Activist Elvin Rigters said: “Grey Pete is just blackface-light.”

The Petes accompanying St Nicholas at the televised arrival had their faces daubed with “soot” as a result of clambering down chimneys to deliver gifts to children, but not full blackface make-up, golden earrings or red lipstick, the NTR broadcaster said in a statement.

Mark Rutte
Mark Rutte (AP)

The broadcaster said it makes its Sinterklaas-themed shows “for all children in the Netherlands. We do that with respect for tradition and with an eye on developments in society”.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has repeatedly said he does not believe Black Pete is racist, but he said in June that his views on the character have changed.

“When I meet people — small children — with dark skin who say: ‘I feel unbelievably discriminated against because Pete is black,’ that’s the last thing you want,” Mr Rutte said during a debate in parliament.

“I expect that in the coming years almost no Petes will be black,” the prime minister added.

“It’s a popular culture that changes over time and under pressure from debate in society.”