(A woman dressed as “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete), the helper of Saint Nicholas (C), takes part in a traditional parade in central Brussels, where the Dutch Christmas tradition is also observed. December 1, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

The Dutch see themselves as tolerant pragmatists, especially adaptable if social harmony or commercial interests demand it.

But that self-image has taken a battering in recent weeks as a growing chorus of voices inside and outside the country protest against a Christmas tradition that many Dutch see as harmless fun but critics say is racist.

According to the folklore, Saint Nicholas arrives in the Netherlands in mid-November accompanied by his servant Black Pete – a part usually played by a white man in “blackface” with a curly wig and large, red-painted mouth.

Now the Dutch are being forced to confront the possibility that their enormously popular Christmas tradition might point to a latent racism which many thought was anathema to their culture.