Monday, December 6, 2010

Sinterklaas-Saint Nicolas

Today is the day every Belgian kid looks forward to all year. Today is the day Sinterklaas or Saint Nicolas, the Belgian equivalent of Santa Claus visits every home and leaves presents in slippers. Not stockings or socks, but slippers, shoes or boots! Unlike Santa Claus Sinterklaas resides in sunny Spain and not the -now soggy- North Pole.

Sinterklaas has no use for reindeer and although he is rumored to use the chimney, he usually arrives by helicopter or by boat. There are Dutch songs to reminds us that every year Sinterklaas arrives from Spain to bring us presents. Once he gets off the boat or helicopter he rides around on a white stallion.

Sinterklaas dresses like the Catholic cardinal that he is. Instead of elves or dwarfs he is accompanied by a politically incorrect army of Zwarte Pieten (or Black Petes) carrying additionally incorrect hemp bags (a big crop in Belgium) containing toys. The Black Petes are meant to scare children and however politically incorrect that may be, being black is a large part of it.
Politically Incorrect

Unlike Santa, Sinterklaas is not just the bringer of presents. His Petes also carry away naughty and misbehaving children in their hemp bags. It was never clear to me where these kids ended up -probably not sunny Spain- and I never saw any kids being carried away, but the idea was scary enough to make me think twice about seeing the Sint. Visiting Sinterklaas, with his list of good and bad deeds (akin to Saint Peter's at the gates of heaven) is both scary and exhilarating for Belgian kids.

For Belgians today is the day to get that new racing bike or other toys they wanted. In cycling, Sinterklaas delivered (albeit slightly ahead of time) for Niels Albert, who now leads the world cup, and for Sven Nys who won in Spain. Unfortunately it did not happen for Iljo Keisse who ended up fourth in Zuerich after starting the day off in first.

Ironically enough, Sinterklaas is a key reason why Christmas is much less of a holiday in Belgium. Talk about one Catholic holiday scavenging another!

Since there are no presents to given on Christmas day, there is also no Christmas shopping season. No big festivities are planned for Christmas eve or Christmas day. A common Christmas activity for those who stay in the country is to go to a restaurant. The Reveillon as it is called is big business but not nearly as big as the New Year's eve Reveillon when everyone participates.

If Christmas is the season for American retailers, New Years is the season for Belgian restauranteurs.

KerstMenu at a Restaurant

Well-off Belgians (and other northern Europeans) tend to travel and spend Christmas on the slopes in the Alps, or the beaches in Thailand and South East Asia. You will probably remember the large number of Northern Europeans who got caught in the Christmas tsunami a few years ago. Many try to get back for New Years though.

New Year's IS a big holiday in Belgium, and it is customary to give presents on that day, but then only to those whom you visit or who actually visit you. Belgians do not believe in mailing presents. If you don't show, you get nada. Belated visits are acknowledged but to a far lesser extent than actual New Year's day visits. People usually visit more distant relatives and friends in the week after New Years. Schools are off for one week before and one week after New Years to allow for these events to take place.

For children, New Years is another day of presents although New Year's day presents tend to be of a different nature. These are either gifts of money to be put in a savings account, or gifts of clothing or other functional items. Toys are typically only given on Sinterklaas day.

Sales only happen in the weeks after New Year's day.

To earn presents on New Year's day, children have to write and recite a well-wishing letter on New Year's morning for their parents, grand-parents and god-parents. Letters are written at school on special holiday stationary and schools spend at least a week preparing younger kids for this event. Families spend New Year's day shuttling kids around to all these various relatives so they can fulfill their obligation.
New Year Letter (nieuwjaarsbrief)

New Year's is also the time to send well-wishing cards. Few if any Belgians send cards on Christmas or mention Christmas on their cards, although the Catholic church has launched campaigns to correct the practice.

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