BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Children gathered with parents in Brussels's medieval main square on Saturday to await the arrival of St. Nicholas, a pre-Christmas tradition in Belgium, the Netherlands and other parts of northern Europe held in honor of the legendary gift-giver.
Every year in early December parades are held in towns across Belgium and the Netherlands, at which thousands of children cheer St. Nicholas, who sports a bushy white beard and carries a staff, as he parades in with his entourage.
His arrival in the capital cities of the two countries is especially picturesque. In maritime Amsterdam, St Nicholas floats on a boat down the city's canals, while in Brussels he parades through the city's medieval streets, handing out sweets and chocolates along the entire route.
But one part of the tradition is under pressure to change. Traditionally St. Nicholas arrived accompanied by Black Pete, his young sidekick, played by an actor wearing black facepaint - a tradition increasingly seen as racist.
In recent years, parades have regularly been interrupted by protests against the practice of having blacked-up actors portray Pete, raising hackles among defenders of what they see as a harmless Christmas tradition.
One legend has it that Pete's black facepaint represents the soot he picks up climbing down chimneys to deliver children's presents. Others say it is a racist practice derived from 17th century Dutch Golden Age paintings depicting the fashion for wealthy families to keep a black house slave.
But defenders of Black Pete are on the back foot. In Belgium, most municipalities have agreed that Pete will no longer wear black facepaint from next year. In the Netherlands, too, it is growing rarer, with many towns experimenting with Petes in different colors.
Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Gareth Jones