Christmas confusion

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas browses the Sunday morning market in Waterloo, Belgium

This Saturday, 6 December, was Saint Nicholas Day in Belgium. This is a tradition where, in the morning, Saint Nicholas visits the houses of children across the country, bringing presents. The idea is that the night before, you leave a beer for the great man himself and a carrot or two for his donkey, in a shoe by the fireplace. In the morning, you’ll find some treats in said shoe. I know, I know – you can’t exactly get an Xbox 360 into one half of a pair of Converses, but there you go.

For children in Belgium, the 6 December is traditionally the big gift-giving day. This is a good 2 weeks earlier that the British tradition, where Father Christmas comes down the chimney to deliver the presents early in the morning of 25 December. Children in Belgium are aware of Father Christmas, known as Père Noël, but the main man (and the Chief Gift-Giver) is Saint Nicholas. Children are always asking questions, so it won’t be long before my children start to ask about the difference.

Which is where it gets confusing. Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas are both men, both wear red, sport a white beard and both deliver presents. How they get there (a donkey vs Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and who tags along to help (elves vs a little black boy) are about the only things which mark out the difference between the two of them.

The increasing popularity of Father Christmas in countries like Belgium is seen by many to be just another example of everything that’s wrong with rampant capitalism – at the most basic level, he’s just a fat man concered with getting as many consumer goods into as many houses as fast as possible. It’s not as if the Saint Nicholas tradition is as a shining example either: his personal assistant goes by the name Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) with people playing him putting on blackface make-up for the role. (There are even dedicated online communities trying to change this.)

Christmas was never supposed to be this confusing.