THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The annual nationally televised arrival in the Netherlands of Saint Nicholas, known locally as Sinterklaas, will happen without public fanfare this year because of concerns about the coronavirus, the broadcaster that organizes the event announced Wednesday.
Each year, thousands of children and parents pack the streets of the town or city hosting the event in mid-November to welcome Sinterklaas who, tradition has it, arrives by boat in the Netherlands ahead of a Christmas-like celebration on Dec. 5.
“To avoid the arrival attracting a large number of people, we find it necessary to keep the location secret,” the Dutch public broadcaster NTR said in a statement on its website.
Confirmed coronavirus cases have been rising sharply in the Netherlands in recent weeks. Hospital admissions for COVID-19 also are beginning to rise, although they remain well below levels seen during the first wave of the country's outbreak in March and April.
The annual holiday event has been a flashpoint in recent years due to an increasingly polarized debate about the appearance of Sinterklaas' helper, known as Black Pete. He is sometimes portrayed by white people wearing blackface makeup, frizzy wigs and red lipstick.
Critics see Black Pete as a racist caricature, while supporters defend him as a traditional children's character. Groups of activists from both sides of the debate often descend on the national arrival of Sinterklaas to demonstrate.
NTR has gradually altered Black Pete's appearance of Black Pete since 2014. The broadcaster said the individuals filling the role for this year's show will have “sooty” faces from clambering down chimneys to deliver gifts to children but not full blackface makeup, golden earrings or red lipstick.
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 said in June that his views on Black Pete had changed, although he maintained he does not believe the character is racist.
“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,” Rutte said in 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.”