If you are planning a December visit to experience Christmas in Ghent, this ultimate guide will help you discover the highlights. If you moved to Ghent this year and this is your first Christmas in Ghent, you’ll want to know how the locals celebrate and how to incorporate the local holiday customs into your own family traditions!
Christmas in Ghent…but not before Saint Nick has arrived!
Christmas in Ghent 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. As Belgium is predominantly a Catholic country, St. Nikolaas, Saint Nick, De Sint (‘The Saint’) or ‘Sinterklaas’ is an important figure as we enter the holiday season.
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.
While Sinterklaas is officially 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.
Sinterklaas Arrives for Christmas in Ghent
On the day St. Nick arrives in Ghent, celebrations tend to begin at around 3pm with a welcome song at De Krook followed by Saint Nick’s arrival. Afterwards each child has the opportunity to greet St. Nick personally and deliver a letter or drawing.
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.
The true Christmas season does not actually start until after St. Nick 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.
Shopping in December to Celebrate Christmas in Ghent
While Ghent seems to fall asleep in November, in December things really get going. Besides the Gentse Winterfeesten which combine the Christmas Market and other seasonal events, there are also other activities going on. For those who like to shop in crowds, the shops in the city centre are open on all Sundays in December, including Christmas Eve. Plus, you can ride the tram or bus for free on Sunday shopping days. If you want to get ahead of the game, pick up some handmade presents at one of the small crafts markets happening around Ghent: check Uit in Gent for exact times and locations.
Other Christmas Events
If you don’t feel like joining in the consumerism, the mid-winter night run in early December and the charity run Warmathon on a Saturday before Christmas are a good way to explore the edges of the city centre while doing something for your health and the society. Warmathon is part of De Warmste Week (The Warmest Week), run by the Stubru radio station, which encourages people to organise events in support of recognised charities. Or warm up your vocal chords for one of the Allez Chantez sing-a-long events around the town in December.
A slightly lower-key way of enjoying the night-time lights is the historical light walk around the city centre. Pick up your map at the city tourist office or online. Or join the annual Ghent by Night walking trail by the local hiking club Florastappers. Choose between 6, 9 or 12 km long walks through the magical streets of the city centre.
Christmas Market in Ghent
Usually kicking off on the first Friday after the 6th of December, the most wonderful time of the year starts in Ghent officially: yes, it’s Ghent’s Christmas Markets, the time of the year when twinkling decorative lights bring some respite from the incessant darkness and we feel a sudden urge to reach for the nearest mug of glühwein.
While Christmas markets in Belgium are not exactly the traditional, romantic affair that we know and love from Germany and Austria, Ghent has been doing its best to catch up with the best over the past few years. So put on your warmest boots, hat and mittens and head out to town to explore the magic of Christmas in Ghent!
The Ghent Christmas market has been growing steadily in recent years and now every year around 150 wooden stalls are scattered around the historical city centre between Sint-Baafsplein and Sint-Veerleplein. Many of them offer little trinkets that can help you out as a decent last-minute present, while you can also enjoy a variety of food from all over Europe and a healthy supply of fast food and mulled wine.
Korenmarkt has always been the place to go for funfair-type of fun rides. Think candy floss, merry-go-rounds and a Ferris wheel that whisks you up in one of its pods to high above the ground. It is a predictable favourite with couples and families.
The Christmas market is open on most days between 11am and midnight, and until 5pm on 24th and 31st December.
Other Christmas Events in Ghent
If you are looking for a perfect spot to get some exercise and have a break from eating and drinking too much, the ice rink under the Stadshal has definitely become a favourite. It is divided into two zones, the larger one (600m2) for those who are comfortable with narrow slits of steel instead of shoes on their feet, and one for beginners who are only getting acquainted with the slippery wonders of ice skating. The ice rink is surrounded by trees to prevent the ice from melting too fast. You can rent skates at the entrance to the rink, or use your own. De Lijn usually offers a special deal for pass-holders, so keep an eye on their website as the offer is limited to the first 3,000 participants.
The transformation of this usually foreboding looking, stone castle into a Winterwonderkasteel at Christmas is incredible: expect fluffy pillows in warm colours, Christmas decorations and lights. Candles, a fire in the grate and some cleverly set up rooms make this normally cold place look positively homely.
You can enjoy the festive attire of the Castle of the Counts from the middle of December until early January, for a price of a simple entry ticket. The opening night of the season usually has free entrance.
During the Winterwonderkasteel festival, the castle stays open until 10pm on Fridays, Saturdays and during the Christmas school holidays. You should definitely go and climb up to the top of the castle tower for an amazing view over the sparkling lights of the winter Ghent festivities.
If Christmas markets and boisterous holiday cheer are not your thing, head over to the Zebrastraat for the Zebrawoods winter festival. This 10-day pop-up event between Christmas and New Year brings a winter forest to the courtyard of the venue close by Kinepolis and promises to showcase an interesting mix of local music talent. While enjoying the concerts, you can have “steamy drinks” and hearty winter food.
Prettiest Trees For Christmas in Ghent
If you just love gazing at pretty lights then check out these Christmas tree spots where you can linger for a while and soak up the atmosphere.
Post Plaza | The Festive Tree
When it’s time to decorate your tree, the old post office of Ghent is just a gem with a selection of unique Christmas ornaments. There you will also find Skins Cosmetics, a revolutionary Dutch retail that sells exclusive niche brands which might not be well-known in Benelux but always have an iconic status abroad. A Diptyque patchouli scented candle, a Le Labo Rose 31 fragrance or a gingerly caressing body polisher are just a few ideas to pamper your loved ones.
Marriott | The Fancy Tree
Ever heard of High Wine? Yeah, that’s the new High Tea – just a boozy version. At Marriott’s wine bar named Poppi, indulge yourself and some dear friends with sophisticated and delicious wine bites. There could never be enough decadent afternoons or evenings spent with good wine, good food and good company during the holiday season, not mentioning Marriott has one of the best views over the river Leie and the historical facades of Graslei.
Phildar | The Yarn Tree
Feel like waking up that creative side of you? Ready to take on the challenge of handling two needles and a skein of yarn at the same time? LazyKnitting* organises a series of workshops in Ghent during the Christmas season.
Sint-Jacobskerk | The Impressionistic Tree
Somewhere between St James’ church and Holy Food Market, outdoor magic is created with just some string lights in circles.
Novotel | The Flamboyant Tree
Right across the town hall dating from the early 16th century, this tree at the hotel lobby of Novotel mirrors its neighbour on the other side of the street: Gothic, flamboyant Gothic.
Meesterbloembinder Nick Bousse | The Fairy Tree
If you are a hopeless romantic at heart and happen to pass by this florist in the old town, the first thing that catches your eye must be bunches of mistletoe hanging on the front door. You know what to do… A hug under the stars and a kiss under the mistletoe, in case this tradition has been too long forgotten. Because what happens there stays there.
Sint-Baafsplein | The Swing Tree
Take a seat in one of the giant baubles and enjoy a kiddie ride (literally) on the Christmas tree in front of the 89-metre-tall Ghent cathedral!
Once Christmas in Ghent is over, make sure to save some energy for Ghent’s New Year celebrations.
*Full disclosure: LazyKnitting workshops are organised by one of TheSquare.Gent editors.