The holiday season can be tricky for expats: this season is filled with traditions and as everyone is eager to relive their happy childhood moments, there is even more scope for misunderstanding than usual. After our introduction to Christmas traditions in Flanders, here is our handy guide to what you can expect towards the end, and start of the year.
Kiss your way through the holidays
Belgians kiss each other’s cheeks not once, not twice, but three times to wish a Happy New Year to the ones they celebrate with, friends, family members and some colleagues. If you work in a large department within a company it can be difficult to know who to kiss. Ask at your office what is the custom and follow that, as it can differ from place to place.
If you don’t enjoy the kissing frenzy, which can last up until the 15th January, you can always say you have a cold and you don’t want to infect others.
31st December: Oudejaarsavond
Traditionally, the Flemish have spent New Year’s Eve with the whole family around a big dinner. However, more recently, Belgians have embraced the party attitude and now usually spend the 31st December having a party with their friends. Consequently, many bars organise oudejaarsavondfeesten and there are night buses to make sure the revellers get home safely. The traditional New Year’s family dinner has moved to 1st January.
De Lijn usually has a special offer for the longest night of the year: Several feestbussen will be departing from Gent Zuid all night long to complement the regular night-time transport. You can recognise them by a letter F in front of the bus number. Travelling on the “festive bus” is free, but you will need a ticket for the other regular lines. However, there’s a special offer for those too. For a discounted fee you can travel as often as you want between 18h on the 31/12 and midnight of 01/01. You can buy the ticket at De Lijn shops and machines or on the night itself from the driver.
31st December: Fireworks
The city of Ghent provides their own spectacular fireworks at Portus Ganda to celebrate the New Year, starting at midnight. If you want to see the fireworks from there, beware of traffic congestion, and be prepared to walk a long way as the nearby parking garages will be full.
Your own fireworks are allowed on the night of 31st December to 1st January, between midnight and 1 am. The City of Ghent recommends you should be very careful, obey safety rules and show respect for other residents. Sky lanterns are forbidden due to the fire risk, and you might get a fine if you use them.
1st January: Nieuwjaarsbrief (New Year letter)
On the 1st January, it is customary to visit your parents or in-laws for a New Year’s meal. For the occasion, Flemish children are expected to write a letter with New Year’s wishes for their parents, godparents and grandparents. This letter, the nieuwjaarsbrief, is then read out loud in front of everyone.
The tradition originated in the 16th century and was at first limited to upper classes, who had access to education. At that time the letter was usually written in Latin and in verse. Since the mid-20th century, the custom has spread to entire Flanders and is now an essential part of the local culture. Despite its Catholic origin, it has been adopted by everyone and currently has no religious meaning.
The letter is actually no small feat for children: it has to be written in rhyme and serves as proof of being able to write and express yourself clearly. No wonder that writing the New Year’s letter has been incorporated into the school curriculum in Flanders!
The children “write” it for the first time in their first year of school, when they are about 3 years old. The text is pre-printed and learned by heart in the classroom. As soon as they learn how to write, the children pen it themselves. The tradition is kept until they move to secondary school (around 12-13 years of age).
The format of the letter is usually a double folded card with illustrations and decorations. The text is then written inside in careful handwriting, commonly addressed to grandparents (Liefste oma en opa …). In the past, the letter opened with the formulaic variants of “Op de eerste dag van het nieuwe jaar, heb ik weer een briefje klaar…”. Nowadays, children are free to experiment with the words and channel their inner poet. The text signs off with Jouw/Uw Kapoen and the date.
Reading out the letter in front of the gathered family, usually quite a big crowd, can be quite an emotional moment, both for children and the family members. Not just because it is stressful for the little ones to showcase their creative work to a large crowd, but also because their honest wishes and innovative turns of phrase make parents and grandparents happy and proud.
After reading the letter the child receives a present or money. This occasion is as important or even more important than Christmas gifts.
6th January: Driekoningen
Belgians celebrate the Epiphany holiday in a most Belgian way: with a cake, of course. The koningentaart is an almond-filled puff pastry, incorporating a bean or a coin. Whoever finds the bean or coin in their piece of cake, becomes the king or queen for a day. A flashy golden (paper) crown and all!
Traditionally, the Epiphany was the day when the Christmas decoration was taken down and also a day of house blessing. The letter tradition can sometimes still be seen as chalk-written numbers and letters on the doors of homes.
January: Ghent new year’s drinks
One Sunday in January each year, the city of Ghent invites anyone and everyone to celebrate the New Year with a drink (or two or three…). The key word here is ‘invites’ – put another way, you won’t have to pay for anything.
Several stalls are set up under and around the stadshal (popularly known as the schaapstal) in the centre of Ghent.
As you can imagine, free drinks means it’s always popular, so arrive early to get a good spot, wrap up warm as there is no indoor section, and bring a tupperware of snacks as there is no food offered. You might do a double take when you see entire families showing up with their own ironing boards to rest their Duvels on – don’t be alarmed, the Gentenaars have had a lot of practice at this.
New Year’s receptions are held in the Gent suburbs as well and are a more laid-back alternative to the massive city-wide one. Some of them require advance registration, so check first. The city of Ghent tries to keep a list of them, but keep your eyes open as often they only get announced on posters within the neighbourhood:
End of January: Bibberduik
After all that drinking, kissing and merrying it is time to face the reality. And what better way to sober up quickly than jumping into cold water. If that’s your thing, join the local polar bears (ijsberen) for a refreshing jump into the chilly Blaarmeersen waters.
This popular event takes place en January if weather permits it. You need to sign up online (you’ll need a medical certificate and be at least 8 years old. Yes, eight.) and bring a strong support crew. Why bibberduik? Nothing to do with beavers, rather shivering (bibberen). You can find up to date info about this by searching for “bibberduik” at the website of the city of Gent.