Saint Nick is on his way ….
Christmas is such an exciting time of year! The magic and suspense can really keep children on their toes. Will Santa reward them for good behaviour? Or maybe you have an entirely different custom in your home … welcome to Belgium, where things are about to take an exciting turn.
Living in another country either short-term or even permanently can lead to many interesting discussions. For us, the longest was how to incorporate the local holiday customs into our own family traditions. Hopefully this background information will keep the surprises to a minimum and allow your family to choose the best adaptations while still feeling like you’ve integrated.
The holiday season actually begins in November here … and we are not talking about Halloween or Thanksgiving. If your kids go to school they will come home excitedly telling you about their preparations and you will also start seeing holiday items in the shops. Although, legally, shops are not allowed to advertise The Saint until November 1st, so that children don’t become too confused.
As Belgium is predominantly a Catholic country, St. Nikolaas or ‘Sinterklaas’ is an important figure as we enter the holiday season.
While St. Nicholas (also Sint Nikolaas, Sinterklaas, De Sint or ‘The Saint’) will officially be celebrated on the eve or morning of December 6th, his actual arrival ‘in the land’ can be 2-3 weeks before that. It is traditional for him to arrive by boat and his first stop in Belgium is Antwerp. Usually accompanied by a somewhat ‘controversial’ Zwarte Piet or two, representing (depending on who you ask) a Moorish slave or a dirty faced man covered in ash who assists St. Nick in handing out treats or threatening to cart away bad children. Later St. Nick will travel on horseback arriving at each city in fanfare.
This year, De Sint will arrive in Ghent on Sunday, November 18th
Celebrations begin at 3 pm with a live children’s musical and acrobatic entertainment under the Stadshal followed by Saint Nick’s arrival. Afterwards there will be an interactive stage show and a parade in which each child has the opportunity to greet St. Nick personally and deliver a letter or drawing. There is also a toy flea market, a variety of workshops, live music, lots of helpers and, of course, plenty of candy.
After St. Nick’s official arrival in Ghent, he will likely visit your child’s daycare or school as well as make appearances at the library, hospitals and, of course, shopping centres and grocery stores. He will eventually arrive in private homes across the country and your children will probably remind you they need to leave their shoes by the chimney before dinner (if you plan to open gifts after dinner) or before going to bed (if you plan to open in the morning, keep in mind things keep on ticking and it’s off to school and work for everyone regardless of the holiday). Oh, and don’t forget a carrot for St. Nick’s horse and maybe a pint of beer or some cookies for him and his helpers.
Also, next time you’re at the grocery store grab a packet of NicNacs, cookies shaped like letters, as it’s traditional for him to leave some behind. Another thing to keep in mind is that all presents on the 6th are from “The Saint” … a friendly neighbour or an aunt might drop by and say that she found a mis-delivered package at her house, but it is of course from him too.
In a few Belgian communities it is St. Maarten who arrives bearing gifts, surprisingly quite early for those preparing to celebrate Christmas – on November 11th. It’s not widespread but for those that do celebrate St. Maarten it essentially replaces St. Nikolaas as the key figure, so the presents will be given then and not on the 6th of December. You can read more about St. Maarten’s legend and the history of this celebration here.
So is St. Nick the same as Santa Claus, and does Christmas really start that early in December? The answer is yes … and no. While their roles are similar and both figures bring gifts and check if children are being naughty or nice, the true Christmas season does not actually start until after St. Nick (or St. Maarten) has left the country. Most families will not start decorating their homes for Christmas until after the 6th of December.
Santa Claus or Father Christmas?
Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, plays a very limited role in Belgian Christmas traditions. Indeed, a purely commercial one. The highlight is Christmas eve and / or the day itself and is celebrated with family around the tree and dinner together. Sometimes twice if you are lucky enough to have two sides of the family nearby, spending the evening with your parents and the following day with the in-laws or visa versa. If you are from the UK, sadly no one celebrates Boxing Day here so it’s back to work you go unless you are lucky enough to take vacation or Christmas falls at the weekend.
The New Year’s letter
This Flemish tradition was entirely new to me. Essentially each child writes (or is given a pre-printed) letter, written in verse, with wishes for the New Year. With their godfather, godmother, grandparents, aunts and uncles looking on, each child stands before them and reads the letter aloud. Afterwards, children are rewarded with a contribution to their savings bank.