Christmas in Belgium

City Hall of Westerlo, Belgium, with Christmas...

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December is the children’s month, the month of family holidays, banquets, and abundant libations. The preparations for the approaching Christmas and the New Year’s Day reveillon are made long in advance, and St. Nicholas’ serves as the children’s prelude to the faInily festivi­ties. It would be interesting to study the evolution of toys throughout the ages, and the sudden changes wrought in them by the coming of the railroad, the automobile, and the airplane. However, these changes are only imaginary, for a toy is, after all, everything except what it is supposed to be, a thing conceived by an adult, a concrete thing so precise and complicated that it does not usually become interesting until the gears are jammed, the wheels broken, and the mechanism ruined. Actually, toys have a soul, breathed into them by the children, and this soul is always the same, whether it be in a doll, a locomotive, or a broom. Thus, the styles are changed in vain, for the child always seeks and finds one thing: the springboard for his dreams, the pretext for creating, just a bit more cleverly, the realm into which no one can penetrate, no one but himself and his brother, the poet, who will go on with the game when the children have grown to men. This, of course, is a fact recognized by the bakers and candymakers who dip their illusory sweets in dream-colored sirups.

In Western Europe, St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6, has remained the great day for the children; not even Christmas has been able to replace it. St. Nicholas, a dignified saint who wears a bishop’s robe and miter, white gloves, and an enor­mous bishop’s ring on his left hand which bewitches every small soul, brings toys and sweets to fill the little wooden shoes in chateau and cottage alike. Between St. Nicholas’ Day and Christmas there is an interruption which helps to prolong the happiness associated with the white-bearded saint and to anticipate with less impatience the somewhat less spontaneous joy of Christendom’s greatest holiday.

Brussels,GrandPlace at Xmas 1979

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The twenty-first, St. Thomas’ Day, brings the above-men­tioned interruption. In former times, in the Ardennes, the schoolboys would set fire to little paper roosters placed before the door of the school building. This apparently innocent custom is, according to some historians, a survival of the animal sacrifices made at the same time of the year in the pre-Christian era. This seems to be substantiated by the fact that only seventy years ago in certain localities, the schoolteacher used to give the students a rooster or a hen which they were to behead. St. Thomas’ is the day when the school children play tricks on their teachers, the chief trick being to entice him to the door of the classroom and lock him up in a little room until he will succumb to the caprices of his young torturers. In Brabant and Limburg, the servants resort to the same strategy with their masters. These innocent pranks are called buitensteken and buitensluiten. The day of the Holy Innocents, the twenty-eighth, which brings further evidence of childhood’s mischievousness, is a very ancient holiday included in the annals of the church at Carthage at . the end of the fifth century. It was established in memory of the young children massacred by Herod to stop the rumors announcing the coming of the Messiah. The legend is of particular significance to Belgians, for popular imagination has it that the bodies of two innocents were buried at the Convent of St. Gerard in the province of Namur. In Antwerp, Brabant, and certain parts of Limburg, the children used to dress up as “grownups,” taking advantage of the authority conferred by the cast-off garments of their parents to run around the house making a great racket.

It is unnecessary to enlarge upon the customs, festivals, visits, and receptions connected with the observance of Christmas, for the holiday has become so universal as to be almost the same in all Western lands.

In Flanders, in the past, a delightful pageant called the “Bethlehem” was presented. A young man dressed as an angel, and burdened with two huge wings, would recite the Ave Maria to a girl. She would answer “Fiat,” and then he would kiss her. A child concealed in a big pasteboard rooster cried out, imitating the song of a little bird: “puer natus est nobis” (a child is born to us); a great ox then interposed a sonorous “ubi” (where), while four kids bleated “Bethlehem.” Finally, a donkey sounded a “hihamus” (for Eamus) and the procession set off, followed by all the animals, while a jester brought up the rear, shaking his bells.

Most characteristic of the magic spirit of the season, collection centers have been set up in the past for contributions of token gifts and candy by the children of Brussels for distribution to orphans and sick youngsters of the city.

Throughout Belgium, open-air re-enactments of manger scenes are charming. The Marionnette Theater in Liege performs special Christmas stories. Christmas midnight Masses are held everywhere.

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