this is some very nice decoration in "de bijenkorf" in amsterdam, a department store. i guess you could compare it to nordstrom in the us. these are "zwarte pieten", or black petes, the helpers of "sinterklaas". here they climb up and down the ropes, its really nice to see. they are there every year, for as long as i can remember. "sinterklaas" is comparable to santa claus; in fact, santa claus' origins are said to come from the dutch sinterklaas. he arrives from spain somewhere in november, and leaves on december 6th. its mainly a feast for children; you can place your shoe at the chimney, with something in it for sinterklaas' horse, and if you have been good, you get a little present or some candy. on december 5, you get some more (and bigger) presents. the zwarte pieten have black faces since they go through the chimney to get the presents into the houses (so i never understood how children living in a house without a chimney could get presents; luckily we did have one). as a child, i liked sinterklaas much more than santa claus, which we also celebrate, probably because sinterklaas takes several weeks and i got more presents... :)
every year, people are complaining about the zwarte pieten; as they are "helpers" of sinterklaas, and black on top of that, they see it as a racist feast. but, as said, their faces and hands are black because of the chimney, and i dont think that children see them as anything else than providers of candy and presents, and it really is a feast for children!! (occasionally they see them as scary as only children that behave well get presents, and parents sometimes threaten their children that if they misbehave they will be taken to spain together with sinterklaas and zwarte piet...).