December 20th, 2009 – by: Adrian_Liston
The winter celebrations are a prolonged affair in Belgium. They start in earnest on the eve of December 5th when Santa and his black slave bring presents to the good little children and abduct the bad ones, putting them in a sack, beating them and taking them off to Spain. Then there are the winter markets, which run until the start of January. Christmas is still on December 25th, but this time Santa is from the North Pole, not Spain. Finally January 6th is Three Kings Day.
Actually the thing about Santa and his black slave is quite complicated. Originally Saint Nicholas day (December 6th) was celebrated by Sinterklass (St Nicolaas), dressed as a Bishop, conquering a devil (Zwarte Piet) and forcing him to help him for a day. As the patron saint of children (and pawnbrokers), Sinterklass would put presents in the shoes of good children and would indeed abduct and beat the bad children, taking them back to his native Spain.
Later on, when it became less acceptable for Saints to beat children, Zwarte Piet took on the punisher role, and evolved from a black devil to a black slave from the Spanish Moors or Africans. Nowdays the whole myth has been considerably improved, with Zwarte Piet being more mischievous than mean-spirited, and variously described as an ex-slave freed by Sinterklass and now working as his (unpaid) servant, or just as a regular servant made black from chimney soot. Sinterklass is really a small children's thing, being largely ignored by families with young kids.
Christmas Day is quite different. For one it is a whole family affair, fairly close to the large get together and feasting in Anglo cultures. Small children never used to get gifts on Christmas (they got theirs on Sinterklass), but now it seems that most children get presents on both.
Belgium also appears to have reimported the modified Sinterklass created in America from the Dutch original. Quite confusingly to little children, Sinterklass and Santa Claus are kind of the same but also kind of different. Sinterklass wears the traditional bishop's outfit while Santa Claus wears the Anglo Santa suit, but both are in red and white with the large white beard (a legacy of the most effective publicity campaign ever by Coke). Sinterklass comes from Spain while Santa Claus comes from the North Pole, but both deliver presents to children down the chimney. Different families resolve this conflicts in different ways - for some they are two distinct people (convergent evolution?), for others they are the same individual playing different roles, for still more one is the real deal while the other is fake (I'd love to hear a parent trying to explain that Sinterklass is real, but that guy dressed up as Santa is just a gimmick and Christmas presents are from the family).
Finally the end of the winter holidays on the 6th of January presents a split between the Walloons and Flemish. The Walloons call the day Galette des Rois
and celebrate it by baking a porcelain figurine of baby jesus into a cake. The person who gets the king in their slice becomes "king" for a day. The Flemish, by contrast, call it Drie Koningen
, and children on this day go around in groups of three singing songs and collecting sweets.
Despite the fascinating winter festivals of Belgium, right now we are packing to fly south for the winter. The geese know what they are doing, it is cold
. -10 degrees yesterday. The snow storm today was fantastic, but I hope the tarmac is clear for tomorrow...