I grew up in the US, where a jolly big-bellied Santa Claus comes from the North Pole on a sled pulled by reindeer, bringing presents to all the children (or coal, if you’re naughty) on Christmas eve.You would leave out some cookies and milk and he would come down your chimney.
However, my parents, being Portuguese, always told us they didn’t grow up with a Santa tradition. Instead it was baby Jesus who would leave a gift in their shoe on Christmas eve. This, of course, was until consumerism took over Portuguese tradition and brought Santa to Iberian lands as well. Still, easy to follow what’s going on.
Then we move to Belgium. I hear about Saint Nicolas. OK, I’ve always known Santa as St. Nick as well. No problem, I get it. Except, then I find out he doesn’t come at Christmas, he comes December 6! And in Flemish it’s Sinterklaas. OK, no biggie. Well, at least not until we had kids!
They way we ‘do the Holidays’ in our family, like most expats living in Belgium, is to go ‘home’ (whatever that means!) for the winter holidays, rushing across Portugal from one set of parents to the other, dragging presents and our belongings behind.
Once Eldest Sprout came along, things got more hectic, especially regarding presents. There were always too many to bring back with us on the plane and we could never give a big-ticket item because it was logistically impossible. On top of that, last year Eldest Sprout was 2 and really got Santa. What we did was buy his present, leave it under the tree in our house here and when we got back from Portugal, showed him the box Santa left when passing through Belgium.
This year, he’s in preschool. Belgian preschool. Saint Nicolas has finally made it into the picture, so I decided to dig deeper. I even thought I’d buy him a children’s book explaining the legend. So, while at the supermarket I saw some children’s books on Saint Nicolas and started to read through. It was like a Brothers Grimm tale! A butcher kidnaps some children and is going to cut them into pieces and pickle them in brine to eat up when along comes Saint Nicolas to the rescue. What?
I figured it was time to look into this a bit more and this is what I found. Saint Nicolas, or Sinterklaas, is celebrated in many European countries, mostly Central and Eastern European it seems. He’s actually based on a real person, the Saint Nicholas of Myra, hailing from what is now Turkey.
It turns out the American Santa, jolly old Saint Nick, is a modified version of this brought to the US by Dutch settlers. In Belgium and the Netherlands, he comes from Spain (don’t ask me why!) on a steamboat (again, why?) accompanied by white men painted black (!!!!), known as Père Fouettard in French and Zwarte Piet (literally Black Pete) in Dutch.
You are supposed to leave out beer for Saint Nicholas, and carrots and turnips for his donkey – although I’ve also read he comes on a white horse. Children leave out their stockings for him to leave a treat, if you’ve been nice, of course. This tradition comes from another of the Saint’s legends, and is also why in many other countries you put out stockings on Christmas eve.
Now, if you’ve been naughty, you really better watch out! Père Fouettard comes around with a whip (fouet in French) for the naughty boys and girls! In some places, he may also put naughty children in a bag and take them back to Spain. Yikes!
If I got it right, Père Fouettard and Zwarte Piet are one and the same in Belgium, but not so in regions of France. If anyone would like to clarify in the comments, I’d greatly appreciate it! Besides all this brutal stuff, there’s also the connotation of a black Pete following Santa around. He’s said to be Saint Nicolas’ slave from colonial times. The more recent, more politically correct version is that he’s his helper and is black with soot from going down chimneys.
So, what have we told Eldest Sprout? For now, Saint Nicolas delivers presents to children in Belgium on December 6th and Father Christmas (Pai Natal in Portuguese), who I also call Santa Claus (oops, too much confusion?), delivers presents to children in Portugal. Our lucky Sprouts get to celebrate twice! As for the book on the legend of Saint Nicholas… it stayed in the shop.
I would love to hear in the comments how you handle disparaging holiday traditions!