A CONTROVERSIAL Christmas character is being axed from an annual Harwich event after years of international debate on whether the tradition is racist.

When St Nicholas arrives in Harwich this weekend, the saint will be without his helper Black Peter for the first time since the event began 11 years ago.

Stories say Black Peter would climb down chimneys to leave a bundle of sticks or salt instead of presents when children were naughty.

In Harwich, black makeup was originally used to depict the character, although recently organisers have enlisted a black resident to take up the role.

But this year they claim that they have been unable to find a black person willing to take the part.

Lay Minister Janet Heath said: “We have stopped it this year as we can’t get anybody who is black to do it.

“It’s a little controversial and we won’t black anyone up, it’s about time we called it off."

The tradition of St Nicholas and Black Peter was originally brought to the town by The Reverend Erwin Lammens from Belgium, where the controversial character has been part of the country’s culture since the 19th century.

After leaving Harwich, Mr Lammens carried the tradition over to St Mary’s Church in Wivenhoe, before bowing to pressure and altering the character two years ago.

“The thing is obviously it is an old tradition,” he said.

“In Holland they still have that tradition even though there is quite a lot of friction around it.

“Three years ago we started to think maybe it’s not right, I had a couple of complaints, even this year when we didn’t have Black Peter I had to say we’ve stopped doing it.

“We grew up with these stories of Black Peter so it’s a bit like giving up a bit of our culture.”

Harwich Mayor Dave Mcleod visits the mainstay event every year, will be present when St Nicholas arrives again on Saturday and was hesitant to dismiss the tradition entirely.

“It was a lovely idea and extremely popular but if there is offence caused there then maybe it should be considered and that’s fair enough.

“Having said that it’s all part of the day, are we going to stop everything that happens because some people don’t agree?"

  • The Story of St Nicholas originates from the Netherlands with nearly every city and town having a special parade to celebrate the patron saint of children and seafarers.

A special day is held in his honour on December 6.

But it is Black Peter, the sidekick of the forerunner of Santa Claus that is controversial.

There has been an ongoing debate in Holland as to whether the character of Black Peter is racist, with his origins disputed between historians.

Some say he was a slave freed by Saint Nicholas before becoming his lifelong companion, others say his face is black to symbolise soot from climbing down chimneys.

There has also been uproar internationally over the use of black makeup to depict his skin colour, as well as red lipstick, an afro wig and hoop earrings.