• This article was amended after publication to replace 'Santa Claus' with 'Sinterklaas' in the second paragraph

The Netherlands has been warned by the United Nations that its festive 'Black Pete' tradition could be racist.

The Dutch celebrate St Nicholas Day with the arrival of Sinterklaas - alonside his pageboy helper 'Zwarte Piet' or Black Pete.

The traditional costume for Zwarte Piet involves black make up, red lipstick, an afro wig and Tudor ruff. He also wears a ring in his ear.

Debate has raged for years about whether the figure is a racist symbol or a harmless tradition.

Now the United Nations has written to the Dutch government, saying that some traditional practices, even if they are part of a country's cultural heritage, could infringe on human rights, the Telegraph reports.

zwarte piet

Zwarte Piet or 'Black Pete' as he is known, helps St Nicholas or Sinterklaas

The UN's human rights commission goes on: "Negative media and other cultural, social or traditional portrayals of persons belonging to minorities may constitute racism and may be degrading to members of those communities, in the present case persons belonging to black populations and people of African descent, and can perpetuate negative stereotypes within society."

Concerns had first been raised in January by the UN, that "the character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people as second class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority in Dutch society".

There are protests to try to prevent the inclusion of the character from this year's parades.