Belgian Traditions: Sinterklaas and Sint-Maarten

Belgian Traditions: Sinterklaas and Sint-Maarten

If you’re 12 years or under, you should probably stop reading this post right about here. Or at the very least: you should be aware that Santa Clause does not come to Belgium. Well, not on Christmas Eve, at least. November 11th and December 6th, on the other hand? That’s when the real magic of Belgian December-traditions happens!

Here’s a couple of things you should know before you start to read this post: we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so that’s a huge chunk of festivities gone (even if not in December, I know). Also, Santa Clause is not a figure children “believe in” over here. Two people that we did believe in? Sint Maarten en Sint Nikolaas (or as we call him: Sinterklaas).

First: some background

Sint Maarten (Saint Martin)

Saint Martin was a bishop in the 4th century. Although he was born in what is now Hungary, he was Bishop of Tours – and naturally still has a shrine there.

What he is most famous for? He was part of the Roman army and, one day, came across a poor beggar. He took his mantle and cut it in half, giving the cut-off half to the beggar. That night, he had a vision in which Jesus wore the half-cloak Martin had given away. When he woke up the next morning, his cloak was whole again.

Because of this story, the Feast of Saint Martin, which is celebrated on November 11th, his name day, was quite often associated with the poor. It was originally even known as a “beggars feast”They would go round singing, asking for a small favour in exchange for their songs.

Currently there are still processions through cities in Belgium ànd in the Netherlands. Only small, dispersed regions in both countries celebrate his name day, though.

In Belgium, where he is celebrated, he will come by during the night of November 10th to 11th and bring clothes to the children – as he as always done where I live!

Sint Nikolaas (Saint Nicholas

Quite similar to Saint Martin, Saint Nicholas lived during the very beginning of christianity, in the third century, and was Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). (He is also the one pictured above!)

There are several myths and legends concerning Saint Nicholas, most of them concerning him saving the lives of children – hence, him being the patron saint of all children. The legend I remember most clearly is also possibly the most gruesome concerns three students.

The three students studied theology and were on their way to Athens when a landlord killed them. The landlord cut the studenst into pieces and kept those in a barrel of brine. Some nights later, Saint Nicholas came to that same inn where the landlord worked, and had a vision of the three students. Saint Nicholas called the landlord, prayed to God, and the three students came to live again.

An alternate version of this same myth talks about three children who were playing when they were called in by a butcher. From there on, the story goes pretty much the same: Saint Nicholas arrives, prays to God, and the children come back to live.

(Also) according to legend, Saint Nicholas died on December 6th. This is basically the Belgian equivalent to Thanksgiving’s “you must not decorate for Christmas befor…” On that day (or the day before, in the Netherlands) Saint Nicholas is celebrated. He brings toys to the children and is aided in doing so by Black Pete.

Christmas

Okay, but, then, what does all of this have to do with Christmas, you might ask?

Well, do you know of any other old white men, with a white beard? Dressed all in red? Maybe has some helpers to get the enormous job of bringing presents to all the children? Oh, and of course: a huge book (one might even call it a list) of what children have been naughty or nice?

Yeah, historically? America’s Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas. So the reason we don’t really get Father Christmas that much? We already celebrate his *predecessor*. And his predecessor’s semi-identical twin that comes by about a month earlier.

To make it more blatantly obvious: I love history. And I love Christmas. So the history of Christmas? Especially when it concerns the figure that I had to be good for, or I wouldn’t get any presents that year? I figured I would share it with you 🙂

Do you have any similar celebrations? Do you maybe celebrate something in the month of December that not (that) many other people do? Be sure to let me know below! As I just said: history lover over here, so I like to get new things to learn more about 🙂

If you want to read more of my Blog-mas posts? Be sure to check out the tag!

-Saar