Christmas 2017 and 2018
The Kingdom of Belgium is more or less culturally split between two communities: the Dutch-speaking, or Flemish, and the French-speaking, mostly Walloon, with Belgian French in Brussels. However, both communities tend to celebrate Yuletide in a similar fashion.
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The first holiday actually occurs on December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day. The Flemish Sinterklaas or French Saint Nicholas arrives on his horse Slecht Weer Vandaag with a big book listing both naughty and nice children. Sinterklaas’ assistant, Zwarte Piet, distributes candies and toys to the good, but naughty children receive bundles of sticks or, in older forms of the tale, are taken back to Spain!
Even before St. Nicholas Day, the Christmas spirit can be felt via a variety of holiday activities.
Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, and wreaths are created from fir or other tree leaves with four candles, one for each week up to Christmas. Young children may sing Advent songs in school or play with Advent calendars, counting down to Christmas.
The first day of Advent often signals the opening of a wide array of Christmas markets across the country. Traditionally, the markets are open air with a variety of goods for sale ranging from holiday foods, crafts, and ornaments. Shoppers often make a day of shopping with family or friends and enjoy a hot mug of mulled wine. Plaisirs d’Hiver is one of the largest annual markets, held in Brussels, with attractions and an impressive light show.
While popular throughout winter, ice skating season picks up after the Belgian Figure Skating Championships in late November. Skating rinks are often found at Christmas markets and considered a healthy pastime for all ages.
Between St. Nicholas Day and Christmas, school children will play a gift-exchanging game with their classmates, generally set to music. It is also customary when invited to a Christmas party to bring a small, non-food gift for a gift exchange among guests.
Christmas Eve is generally observed with close family and friends. Presents tend to be more practical than on St. Nicholas Day and are laid under a Christmas tree. Although fake trees are becoming more popular, most Belgians choose a real tree and decorate it with lights, garlands, and baubles. A large dinner comprised of an appetizer, poultry main dish, and optional cheese course is served, followed by a Yule log with coffee for dessert; the exact dishes vary to match Flemish or Walloon cultures. In Walloon districts, a special breakfast of cougnou, a sweet bread in the shape of baby Jesus, is eaten on Christmas Day.
Remember to wish everyone in Flemish “Vrolijk Kerstfeest” or Walloon “djoyeus Noyé” this holiday season!