St Nick and his problematic helper
Christmas comes early in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Children get their presents today, 6th December. And, of course, they get them from St Nick or Sinter Klaas, as they call him.
Many towns hold festivals and parades when he comes visiting. But British and Americans, happily pushing their children forward to get a little present and an early glimpse of Father Christmas, tend to do a shocked double take when they spot his helper.
While recognisably the model for Father Christmas, Santa here is still quite clearly a Saint and a Churchman. He wears a long red robe and wears a golden mitre and carries a bishop's crook. He is kindly, but sober and very much the visiting dignitary.
Not so his side kick, Zwarte Piet. Black Pete is a rascal, a prankster, the source of sweets thrown in the air, with the dark possibility that he could put you in his sack and take you away if you've been really naughty. But that's not the reason for the double take.
Zwarte Piet is nearly always a blacked-up white man or woman, wearing a tight curly wig with big rouged lips, dressed in bright pantaloons, a big ruff and gold earring. A very old-fashioned, and to many offensive, caricature of a black man.
I wrote about this when I had only been living here a couple of months, but have been digging since then.
We all know the original Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, was a bishop from Myra in what is now Turkey. He probably attended the critical Council of Nicaea and was martyred by a Roman Emperor. His remains are buried in Bari in Italy.
But every child in the Low Countries knows that he resides in Spain and travels north in a steam ship. In the old days, if you were naughty, Black Pete might give you a strapping or put coal in your shoes. But, if you were really bad, he might put you in his sack and take you back to far off Iberia.
The Spanish connection is easy. The lowlands were ruled from Spain under the Hapsburgs, and Spanish soldiers would have been both a familiar and exotic sight. Spain equals far away and foreign. And Saint Nick is not so daft if, like many Brits, he prefers the Costas to the tundra.
Black Peter's origins are more problematic. There are suggestions that he started life as a Moorish servant from Spain, a Turkish orphan rescued by St Nick, or an Ethiopian slave freed by him.
Some, squirming with embarrassment, explain that Black Pete gets black from soot coming down the chimney. If so it doesn't explain why he looks like a Victorian colonialist's supposedly humorous caricature of a negro. But perhaps Black Pete's origins lie further back and raise even more concerns about today's portrayal.
Among his miracles and good deeds, St Nicholas also had time to best the devil and medieval pictures show him with Satan in chains. And the devil is always painted black.
But it's possible Pete is pre-Christian. One of his jobs is to look after Sleipnir, Santa's horse.
He's an elegant but normal nag but curiously has the same name as Odin's eight-legged steed. And Odin is often portrayed taking dead souls back to the underworld. And guess what colour they are? Black.
Earlier, I deliberately wrote of Zwart Pete's "darker" side. It is this unthinking, Western link between evil, death, colour and coarse caricature that so worries some.
Others point out that it is Pete who's really loved by the kids, not the stuffy bishop, always adding that it's a bit of harmless fun.
Here, it's a debate that is as seasonal as Christmas itself.
(A version of this article first appeared in the December edition of BBC History Magazine).