The Customs of Christmas

Christmas Around the World — Belgium

Belgium Christmas Market stallCountries with multiple ethnicities, like Belgium, have Christmas traditions that may be slightly different in certain sections of the country. Differing languages are a contributing factor. In northern Belgium, the Flemings speak Dutch. In southern Belgium, the Walloons speak French; and in eastern Belgium, the people speak German. Together they produce some wonderful Christmas customs for the world to enjoy.

In early November St. Nicholas begins appearing in Belgium. He is tall, thin, and dresses in the robes of a Catholic bishop. He carries a staff that looks much like a shepherd's crook. It is thought he usually arrives by boat from Spain. He uses many modes of transportation such as marching in parades, flying in helicopters, or riding a donkey when he arrives in the towns and cities of Belgium. Like Santa Claus, St. Nicholas may be found with children talking with them and taking photographs with them.

Every year the children of Belgium write so many letters to St. Nicholas that the Belgian postal service hires people to help answer St. Nicholas's mail. A treat is included in every reply. On December 4 St. Nicholas comes to talk with the children to find out if they have been good or not. Many children entertain St. Nicholas with poems and songs learned at school.

On December 5 children put their shoes by the hearth or in front of a window along with speculoos, a traditional Belgian Christmas cookie, and other treats for St. Nicholas and his horse in hopes that St. Nicholas fills the shoes with treats and gifts. After the children go to sleep, St. Nicholas goes from house to house on a white horse or donkey leaving presents for the children. These gifts may include oranges or tangerines, candy, nuts, and presents for good children, onions, lumps of coal, or whipping rods for bad children.

On December 6 St. Nicholas may be seen visiting boarding schools and orphanages giving gifts to those children. He may also be seen at city council meetings and offices of large companies.

Everywhere Christmas decorations are going up. Natural greenery, fresh Advent wreaths called Kerstkrans, flowers, and candles paired with evergreen branches, pinecones, and nuts appear in homes, restaurants, hotels, city squares, and many other places as well. Contests for the best decorated house are becoming more popular every year.

Christmas trees are becoming more popular. They may be decorated with lights, small candles, ornaments shaped like apples and other fruit or pinecones, speculoos, chocolate wreaths with sprinkles, and brightly colored ornaments and garlands. Edible ornaments used on Christmas trees are replaced as others are eaten.

Many Belgians observe Advent beginning the Sunday nearest November 30 and ending on Christmas Eve. Advent wreaths with five candles are set up. On the first Sunday the family lights a candle and prays. Each week the ceremony is repeated with one additional candle being lit each time. If Advent wreaths are not available in the house, Advent calendars with holiday pictures or Bible verses behind flaps may also be used.

The nativity scene, known as creshe, kerststal, or krippe, plays a major part in Christmas in Belgium. They can be found in private homes as well as in many public areas such as churches, restaurants, marketplaces, offices, and even by the side of the road. Over three hundred creches may be found in the Campine region near Antwerp. These creches come in all shapes and sizes from very tiny to life-sized or even giant-sized. Some contain valuable collectible figures and family heirlooms while others may be made of handmade figures. Upon examining a creche, one may see life-like statues, live actors, live animals accompanied by music and lighting. Smaller creches may include Mexican donkeys, Russian dolls, and French santons (traditional figures of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi, animals, figures of village people of various ages dressed in various occupations bringing gifts to the baby Jesus). Some areas of Belgium provide maps for tourists with routes to take to see the many creches.

Christmas markets begin appearing in city and village squares throughout Belgium in early December. There are many things to do and see and buy at these Christmas markets. One may enjoy a day of ice skating while shopping for gifts, food for the Christmas feast, greenery for decorating, santons and animals for the creche, and nutcrackers and ornaments for the house. Christmas market shoppers may also be entertained by musicians, painters, Christmas plays, choirs, poetry readings, ice sculptures, craft and theatrical demonstrations, storytelling, light shows, and more.

Midnight December 24 finds most Belgians attending Midnight Mass. Many people walk to mass forming a large parade. The parade ends at the church where the people enjoy a candle-light service filled with beautiful music.

Gifts may be given at different times during the Christmas season. Some children get their gifts from St. Nicholas on his day December 6. Other children must wait until the Christkindl (Christ Child), or St. Nicholas, Pere Noel, or Santa Claus brings their gifts on Christmas Eve. A few children receive gifts at both times. Some French-speaking Belgians wait until New Year's Day to exchange gifts.

The traditional Christmas feast may be eaten before or after Midnight Mass or around noon on Christmas Day. Christmas dinner is served over several courses such as appetizers, a seafood course including oysters, lobster, salmon, crayfish soup, and caviar, the main meal, and dessert. Traditional main dishes may include turkey or some other game bird, venison, aardappel krokettes (fried potato croquettes), celery root and potato puree, baked apples filled with berries, and pears poached in spiced red wine. Bouketes, buckwheat crepes fried with butter, raisins, and apple rings sprinkled with brown or white sugar, may also be found on the Christmas table. Favorite desserts may include speculoos (Belgian spice cookies flavored with cinnamon, ginger, and cloves), chocolates, and the Buche de Noel (a cream-filled chocolate cake or ice cream cake shaped like a log and topped with snowy icing.

New Year's Eve finds many people celebrating with their families and friends or attending one of many private parties. Fireworks are very popular forming a colorful backdrop for many parties.

New Year's Day is another day where good food is enjoyed. Throughout the day, children may go from house-to-house singing traditional songs welcoming the new year and wishing the residents the best in health and happiness. In return the children may receive cookies, candy, and oranges. Polar bear clubs can be found at the North Sea or along one of the many canals taking their traditional dip in the cold water. Some do it for charity; others just for fun.

Belgium's Christmas season comes to an end on January 6, Three Kings Day. In some villages, children and adults dress up as the three kings and parade about town going from house to house to collect money for charity. In many of these homes, families enjoy a Driekoningentaart (a Three Kings pie or cake made with a dried pea baked into it) on Three Kings Day. Whoever finds the pea in their piece becomes king or queen for the day.

Christmas in Belgium employs many traditions flavored by the culture and ethnicity of the people living in the various regions of the country. As the flavors are fully blended, they form a Christmas season for all to enjoy.

Jesus is the Reason for the season

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