To usher in the holiday season, Sinterklaas chugs all the way from Spain in his steamship, docking in the Netherlands in mid-November. Concurrently the annual debate begins about whether the controversial Zwarte Pieten, his happy helpers, perpetuate racism in the 21st century.
The "six to eight black men" assigned to help with Sint's duties are dressed in 17th century slave garb, black makeup, gold earrings and ruby lips. The merry band is offensive to some, including ethnic minorities like Moroccans and Surinamese who reside in Holland. For many Dutchies, including 92% of Amsterdammers who've grown up with the tradition, it's harmless fun.
After docking at Amsterdam's Central Station, Sinterklaas rides through city streets on his white horse, Amerigo. The Zwarte Piets scamper alongside, slinging peppernoten, as folks wonder how they got their shoe polish confused with their face cream. In the run-up to December 5, when deserving Dutchies get presents, Sinterklaas presumably analyzes kids' behavior, hangs out in town and trades tapas for olliebollen, fresh from stands in Leidseplein, Rembrantplein and other holiday gathering spots. After presents are exchanged, naughty kids are carted back to Spain in a sack, entitling them to a warm winter far from the frosty Netherlands.