Drive-ins let Dutch kids have socially distanced meeting with St. Nicholas

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    By Reuters Staff

    APELDOORN. – Coronavirus is changing the face of end-of-year children’s festivities in the Netherlands, with drive-ins being used to give kids a socially distanced meeting with St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and his helpers.

    “It’s a nice alternative, so that we can meet the children and the children can really come see Sinterklaas in person,” Nienke Spruit, who acted as one of the saint’s jolly helpers at a drive-in in the city of Apeldoorn on Sunday, told Reuters.

    Dozens of cars waited in line to let children sing a song to Sinterklaas or hand drawings to his helpers through their windows in return for a gift.

    In Dutch lore, St. Nicholas travels once a year from Spain on a steamship laden with presents, accompanied by dozens of helpers who traditionally have their faces painted black. Together, children are told, they travel the land for two weeks, handing out cookies and presents, finishing with a night of gifts and poems on Dec. 5.

    But the coronavirus has drastically changed things in the Netherlands, with public events banned and groups of no more than four people allowed to meet.

    The government last month urged people to limit this year’s celebrations to their own household, while towns and cities had to scrap festivities, which usually attract large crowds.

    But that is not the only change facing Sinterklaas, as growing numbers say his helpers’ traditional image is a racist caricature.

    The clownish servants known as “Black Pete” are usually played by white people in black face paint, frizzy wigs and red lipstick.

    In a national poll this year, 45% said Pete’s image should change, up from less than 30% last year.

    In Apeldoorn, the Petes wore only dabs of black paint on their cheeks, representing soot from the chimneys they are said to climb down to deliver presents.

    “Make-up covering the whole face is outdated,” Spruit said. “We are doing soot, to make it acceptable for everyone.”