Hungary is using Santa Claus for an unprecedented Christmas campaign to combat discrimination against the country's large Roma minority, also known as Gypsies. The initiative comes after criticism from organizations such as the European Union, which Hungary will join in 2004.
In freezing temperatures, near Pearl of Buda, a shopping center in Budapest, children gather around an open fire oven where an enthusiastic Hungarian Santa Claus tries to sell burned chestnuts to their parents.
When his fake beard slips, revealing his white face, some of his customers laugh. But chances are they would have had expressed shock if he had been a dark-skinned Santa Claus from Hungary's Roma community.
A recent commercial television survey shows that nearly half of Hungarians would express "their shock out loud" if a Roma Santa Claus came to play with their children in a kindergarten.
The opinion poll comes as Hungarians are seeing a television commercial showing Santa Claus, or Mikulas in Hungarian, playing with children and handing out presents. He later identifies himself as a Roma.
A similar message can be seen on huge billboards in train stations and in magazines with slogans such as "Shed your prejudice" and "Not all humans are Roma, but all Roma are human."
It is part of what is called "Program R," a nationwide advertising campaign designed to fight discrimination against Hungary's large Roma community, which makes up about eight percent of the country's population of around ten million. The campaign is being organized and funded by activists and media personalities, including a popular radio and television program host.
Yet the Hungarian Santa Claus in front of the shopping mall, whose real name is Miklos Aycuta, is not very pleased with the campaign.
Mr. Aycuta said organizers of the campaign should not push too hard on the Roma issue because it is upsetting to many Hungarians. He added there are some nice people among the Roma, including writers, poets and musicians. But he also believes the government and organizations supporting the Roma should not force their opinion on the majority of Hungarians. Organizers argue that their anti-racism campaign is an effort help end the suffering of the Roma, who have been described by politicians as the main losers in Hungary's transition from Communism to a market economy.
Officials estimate that due to discrimination in the workplace and at school, more than 70 percent of Roma capable of working have become unemployed since the democratic changes began in 1989.
Most of them live in poverty and life expectancy for Roma is a decade shorter than the Hungarian average of 68 years for men and 76 for women.
In addition, a recent United Nations survey shows that xenophobia is on the rise in Hungary, with more than half of those questioned saying they would least welcome Arabs and Roma as immigrants.
Still, many people believe it is time for a change. Among them is 48-year-old retired bus driver Karoly Pirohov, who welcomes the anti-discrimination advertisements.
"I saw the campaign on the television, and I think they should have started it much earlier," Mr. Pirohov explained. He said Hungary should have started the campaign as far back as the 1970s, when it was still a Communist country. He said if that had happened, there would not be so many "negative feelings" toward the Roma in Hungary today.
Media personalities involved in the current campaign hope to get financial support from the European Union, which has urged Hungary to improve the situation of its Roma minority.
As part of that effort, Hungary's Socialist-led government has also launched a free food program for impoverished Roma school children. Officials hope that will help Roma children be better students, and have more opportunities than their parents have had.