Monday, December 8, 2014

A Visit From St. Nicholas

An American 5 year old's version
of St. Nicholas
One of my favorite aspects of living overseas is learning about local traditions. As Americans it is all too easy to assume that just because we celebrate a holiday in a certain way everyone else does as well. But that is not the case and this is what I love about being in Europe. And what is even better is that Sidney is learning about different holiday celebrations in his Belgian school then gets to share, and many times introduce, the traditions to us. I think it is wonderful that he is learning that there are different ways of celebrating holidays and other important days with no way being better than the other. Hence was the case last week when St. Nicholas visited his school.

Saint Nicholas is the forefather of the American Santa Claus who fills stockings on the 25th of December and thus his story is similar yet different than the American version. His name is derived from his Dutch name of "Sinterklaas". There are other similarities as well. Both dress in red but Sinterklaas dons a bishops robe and mitre. Santa has his posse of elves while Sinterklaas has helpers who are called "Pere Fouettard". Rather than wearing tights and smocks their clothes pay homage to their Moorish roots. In a dark twist that would probably be deemed unacceptable to Americans, the Pere Fouttard are said to put the children who have been bad in their sacks and take them back to Spain where they live during the rest of the year. (No frosty North Pole temperatures for Sinterklaas and his helpers).

St. Nicholas' actual birthday falls on the 6th of December and is aptly called Saint Nicholas Day. Here in the Benelux, on the evening of the 5th children leave their empty shoes (or in the Netherlands, their clogs) in front of the fireplace with the hopes that upon waking in the morning they will find them filled with treats. Hay and carrots are often left for the reindeer. As is the case with the American Santa, good children awaken to find their shoes filled with goodies while bad children receive nothing. Here, the story is the same as it is in America. And the festive atmosphere that surrounds the lead up to his arrival? That too is the same.

A few weeks ago Sidney's teacher put out the call for empty plastic water bottles for an upcoming project. When I queried Sidney about it he smugly told me that I needed to wait to see what they were making. Each day he came home with small progress reports and all I could surmise was that a lot of cutting and gluing was involved. Sidney said it was hard but fun. Early last week Sidney informed me that St. Nicolas was coming on Friday and that his madame had informed him that the entire class needed to be good if they were to receive a gift. He was excited and when I inadvertently referred to him as Santa Claus I was quickly corrected. And sure enough, this past Friday he visited the school and Sidney came home with not only his gift (a wonderful age appropriate wooden puzzle) and his own small St. Nicholas which Sidney had been laboring over for the past few weeks. He proudly showed me how he had cut then glued each piece. And St. Nicholas is now sitting in his place of honor under our American Christmas tree awaiting the arrival of his cousin Santa Claus later this month.

Christmas itself is still an important holiday here in Europe and it has many of the same over-commercialized aspects that we do in the United States. But despite this widely recognized and celebrated day, Europeans continue to hold onto their St. Nicholas Day celebrations. I love this and hope it is a tradition that is never lost.

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