A tale of two Santas
Meet Saint-Nicolas, aka Sinterklaas in Flanders, the patron saint of schoolchildren whose feast day is celebrated in the Netherlands, Germany, parts of France, as well as in Belgium, on December 6. Over here, the day is an even bigger deal than Christmas, with good children receiving treats and toys from the avuncular old saint, while naughty ones dread to come face to face with Père Fouettard/Zwarte Piet, his menacing sidekick.
Of course, Santa Claus and Saint-Nicolas are really two avatars of the same historical figure: a bishop who lived in Asia Minor in the third century AD and is remembered for his proverbial kindness towards children and, generally, the weak and vulnerable. There are numerous legends concerning him, including one in which he threw bags of gold into a poor man’s house to serve as dowries for his three daughters. But the most famous one tells us of three children he brought back to life after they were slaughtered and pickled in a tub of brine by an evil butcher.
Since December 6 falls outside the holidays, the day is lavishly celebrated in Belgian kindergartens and schools with songs and stories, distributions of gifts and sweets, and visits from the saint in person. But there is nothing stopping you from marking the occasion at home too, Belgian-style.
Start out by helping your little ones write a letter listing the gifts they would like to receive. Here’s your chance to practice your language skills, since there is no evidence that the saint understands anything but French and Dutch. The Belgian post office has set up a service to answer all letters addressed to Saint-Nicolas, Rue du Paradis 1, 0612 Ciel – or, in Dutch, Sinterklaas, Spanjestraat 1, 0612 Hemel.
On the eve of the big day, make sure your children arrange their shoes or stockings in front of the fireplace. Remember to place a glass of wine for the old man and a sugar lump and carrot for his donkey. Fill the shoes with toys, tangerines, sweets and Saint-Nicolas-shaped chocolates – bakeries and supermarkets are awash with them this time of year – which your kids discover on waking up. The more zealous parents will have decorated the house and perhaps spent the previous weekend baking gingerbread biscuits (speculoos), or made shapes and figurines with marzipan (massepain), another seasonal treat.
Feel free to repeat the operation more or less identically two and a half weeks later when Christmas comes around. More and more Belgians do, even though it means that Santa and his sack full of toys carry a strong air of déjà-vu. Not that children mind.