AMSTERDAM (AP) -- A Facebook page seeking to preserve the "Black Pete" clowns in blackface who accompany St. Nicholas to the Netherlands during the holidays has become the fastest-growing Dutch-language page ever, receiving 1 million "likes" in a single day.
The mushrooming popularity of the "Pete-ition" page reflects the depth of emotional attachment most Dutch people -- 90 percent of whom have European ancestry -- feel to a figure that helped launch the tradition of Santa Claus.
It also reflects their anger at critics who call it racist. Those critics include foreigners who they feel don't understand the tradition. They also include many of the country's most prominent blacks.
"Don't let the Netherlands' most beautiful tradition disappear," the page says.
On Tuesday, the chairwoman of a U.N. Human Rights Commission panel looking into the festival condemned it flatly.
"The working group does not understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery, and that in the 21st century this practice should stop," Verene Shepherd told television program EenVandaag.
In stories told to children, St. Nicholas -- Sinterklaas in Dutch -- arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid-November accompanied by a horde of helpers: "Zwarte Pieten," or Black Petes, who have black faces, red lips and curly hair.
A public broadcaster produces a daily fictional news program about the doings of Sinterklaas and the Petes that is shown in public elementary schools for several weeks. On the evening of Dec. 5, families read poems and exchange presents to cap the Dutch-Belgian festival that is one of the main sources of the Santa Claus traditions.
Opponents of the tradition say Pete is an offensive caricature of black people. Supporters say Pete is a positive figure whose appearance is harmless.
The traditional song refers to Pete as a "servant" to the elderly saint, but in recent years those references have largely been replaced with the idea that he is black from chimney soot as he scrambles down to deliver toys and sweets for children who leave their shoes out overnight.
Discussion about Zwarte Piet has escalated since 2011, when a prominent opponent was thrown to the ground, handcuffed by police and dragged away for wearing a T-shirt reading "Black Pete is Racism" where children might see.
Opposition has been centered in Amsterdam, home to the Netherlands' largest black community. Mayor Eberhard van der Laan this month said he would support changing Pete's appearance -- but only gradually, as it has changed over time in the past.
"If it appears that Amsterdammers feel pain as a result of this tradition, that's a good reason for new development," he said.
Organizers of the festival and the broadcaster also said they would be open to changes if people want them.
The latest public figure to speak out against the tradition was none other than the (white) man who has played the part of "Head Pete" on the Sinterklaas news program for more than a decade. His commentary appeared in a top Dutch newspaper Tuesday, entitled "Make me less black and less a servant."
Others to question the tradition include Victoria's Secret model Doutzen Kroes and many of the country's prominent thinkers and black celebrities.
But their campaign has failed to draw widespread support and the overwhelming majority of Dutch people don't want change.
"Message for the U.N.: Isn't there a war somewhere, starvation or genocide going on that you could better be concerned about?" Dutchman Peter Udo commented on the Facebook page, drawing more than 2,000 likes.
Asked about the issue at his weekly press conference, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it isn't his place to intervene in a folk tradition.
"Black Pete: The name says it already. He's black," he said. "I can't change much about it."
On the Internet:
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.