Black Pete Zwarte Piet Netherlands Dutch tradition
CNN  — 

Black Pete, the controversial Dutch Christmas character who sparks annual protests in the country, will no longer appear in blackface each year on the Dutch public broadcaster NTR.

Actors playing the character will now only have soot marks on their cheeks, reflecting his travels down chimneys alongside Santa Claus, according to NTR, which makes the yearly program showing the character’s arrival.

The presence of “Zwarte Piet” at Christmas festivals and on television is an annual source of debate in the Netherlands, with critics and protesters calling the character a racist throwback to the colonial era.

He has traditionally been played by white actors in blackface, wearing a curly afro-style wig and red lipstick.

NTR said in a news release that it is making the change in a way that respects tradition but also reflects societal changes.

The characters will have soot on their faces because they go through people’s chimneys to deliver gifts, the broadcaster added, with the amount of soot on each actor depending on how many chimneys they have traversed.

The character, popularized in a 19th century children’s book, is a helper of Sinterklaas, the figure based on St. Nicholas who served as inspiration for Santa Claus.

His unveiling is broadcast live as part of NTR’s annual program “Sinterklaasjournaal,” a mock news program aimed at children that shows the arrival of Sinterklaas and his helpers.

But he has prompted protests each year by people on both sides of the debate, with critics also sending complaints to the Dutch government.

‘A step in the right direction’

NTR admitted that the most passionate opponents on each side of the debate may not be appeased by the change, but the majority of Dutch people would be.

A demonstrator at a 2013 protest against Black Pete in the Netherlands.

The decision was greeted with cautious optimism by activist group Zwarte Piet is Racism, which said in a Facebook post that it “seems a step in the right direction,” adding: “We’ll see how it works out.”

But one of the nine regional groups scheduled to provide Black Petes to this year’s festival has withdrawn and will host its own festival starring the characters in full blackface the following week, its secretary confirmed to CNN.

Politicians have also entered the debate, with Remco Dijkstra, an member of parliament in Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD party, tweeting “Boy, I’m not watching” in response to the news.

A regional board member of the same party resigned last year after calling anti-Black Pete protesters “negro fascists” on Twitter.

And the far-right PVV party led by Geert Wilders has frequently defended the character’s appearance, attempting to introduce a “Black Pete Law” in 2014 to ensure the character would not be changed.

This year’s unveiling of Black Pete is scheduled for November 17, and will be broadcast live from Zaanstad in the province of North Holland.