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Festivals of Western Europe, by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, [1958], at



    The fact that both French and Dutch are spoken in Belgium accounts for the mixture of the two languages in the place names and descriptions of Belgian festivals.

NIEUWJAARSDAG (New Year's Day) January 1

    For weeks before New Year's Day children begin saving their pennies to buy gaily decorated papers for writing holiday greetings to parents and god-parents. Often these papers are prettily embellished with motifs such as golden cherubs and angels, brightly-colored roses or ribbon-tied garlands. The children practice composing and writing their letters in school, until a final perfect, or nearly perfect, copy can be made on the fancy paper. Then they carefully hide the messages from their parents.

    On New Year's morning the children read their little compositions before the assembled family. Not only do they wish health and happiness in the coming year; they promise to mend naughty ways and behave like angels during the next twelve months.

    In the Walloon district of Liege children go about from house to house, or stop passers-by on the streets, to wish them a Happy New Year and offer nules, large wafers which are decorated with raised imprints of the crucifix. The children receive coins in exchange for the wafers, which people keep during the year as charms against evil and disease.

    Walloon and Flemish farmers still observe the charming custom of rising early on January first and going out to stables and pens to say "Happy New Year" to the horses, cows, pigs and other domestic animals.

DRIEKONIGENDAG (Three Kings' Day) January 6

    Three Kings' Day, the great festival of boys and girls, usually is celebrated with a party and a gateau des rois, or cake of the Kings. A bean baked inside the cake bestows royalty for the day on the child who finds it in his portion. The King chooses a Queen. Crowned with gold paper crowns and robed in finery borrowed from mother's scrap bag, the youthful sovereigns rule the merry party. Whatever the King and Queen do must be imitated by everyone else.

    Often bands of children go from door to door singing ditties about the Kings and receiving coins in return. One favorite rhyme is:

Three Kings, Three Kings,
Give me a new hat.
My old one is worn out.
Mother must not know it:
Father counted the money on the grille!

SINT GUDULE or SAINTE GEDULE (Saint Gudule), Brussels, province of Brabant January 8

    The anniversary of Saint Gudule, patroness of Brussels, is observed with great solemnity at the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudule. According to tradition Saint Gudule is buried in the cathedral.

    Legend says that the seventh-century saint, who was noted for piety, used to walk barefoot several miles, morning and evening, to attend Mass at the church of Morzelle. One day, when on the way to early service, the devil extinguished her lantern. As the young girl knelt and prayed for help, an angel rekindled it. The story explains why the saint always is represented accompanied by an angel, who is lighting her lantern.

    Many miracles are attributed to Saint Gudule who died at Nivelles (Nijvel) in 712.


    Saint Gregory the Great, the sixth-century monk who became a pope, is patron of school children and scholars. On his feast day boys and girls take a holiday in honor of this pious saint to whom popular legend attributes many kind acts. One is that he freed frogs from the ice of early spring; another that he loved beggars, whom he deferentially called "Father" and fed at his own table with food served on golden plates.

    School children rise early on March 12. Dressed as "little soldiers of Saint Gregory," they take a big basket for gifts and parade through the streets, singing an old song. A noisy drummer announces the approach of the little procession. Pope Gregory himself, in gaudy vestments and gold paper crown, is attended by standard-bearers and followers arrayed in colorful odds and ends of cotton, velvet or silk. The little girls of the procession wear big bright shoulder bows, which capricious March winds snatch at and billow out like butterfly wings.

    A troop of angels is one of the procession's traditional features, possibly because of the legend that once, when Gregory was walking through the slave market at Rome, he saw for sale a group of comely heathen youths from Britain. Upon learning their nationality Gregory exclaimed, "Were they but Christians, they would truly be angeli [angels], not Angli [Anglo-Saxons]!"

    The little procession makes neighborhood rounds. At each door the children pause hopefully, chanting this old song which suggests treats are welcome for their holiday feast:

This is the school boy's holiday,
Today we shall have crusty bread
And red, red wine.
Long live good Saint Gregory!

ONZE LIEVE VROUWEDAG (Annunciation) March 25

    Many folk-beliefs surround the Day of Annunciation, anniversary of the Angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary of the Mystery of Incarnation. The Belgian peasant believes this holy time to be important in weather lore, and thinks that a fair eve predicts a plentiful harvest.

    Legend says Our Lord bade even wild birds and animals to observe the Annunciation feast with quiet meditation. The cuckoo alone disobeyed the command and continued his usual raucous calling throughout wood and dale. As punishment for his disobedience God doomed the bird to eternal restless wandering, without a nest of his own.

CARNAVAL (Carnival), in Binche, province of Hainaut The Sunday, Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday

    Carnival, which falls on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, is celebrated throughout Belgium with varying degrees of gaiety. Binche, Alost, Eupen and Maimedy are particularly famous for picturesque observances. Possibly the most remarkable celebration, however, is the Carnival of the Gilles, at Binche.

    It is said that this spectacular event originated in 1549, when the Low Countries provinces which constitute modern Belgium were part of the empire ruled by Charles V. Charles sent his son, who was later to rule Spain and the Low Countries as Philip II, to visit the provinces, and Charles' sister, Marie of Hungary, who was regent under Charles for the area, gave a great entertainment to honor her visiting nephew and to celebrate recent Spanish conquests in Peru. Many think that the gilles, with their enormously tall, plumed headdresses, colorful Inca costumes, foot stamping and strange rhythms, started as a ballet to honor the Conquistadores who, under Pizarro's leadership, had subdued the Peruvian Indians eight years before.

    The word gille means clown. It is the ambition of every male inhabitant of Binche to be a gille at least once in his lifetime. The costumes are costly and elaborate. The brightly-colored blouses are stuffed out with straw; the bell-bottomed long trousers trimmed with many rows of locally-made Binche lace. The deep, gold- and lace-trimmed collars are decorated with tinkling bells and the broad sashes adorned with symbols of the zodiac. The gilles wear heavy wooden shoes with which they clap out their rhythms as they dance tirelessly through the streets, by day and night. On their left arms the performers carry baskets of oranges, which they aim at friends and acquaintances during the dance through the town.

As Albert Marinus, one of Belgium's great folklorists, aptly says:

The honor, the joy, the pride of a city: The Gilles.
The honor, the joy, the pride of its inhabitants: The Gilles.

VASTENAVOND (Shrove Tuesday) The Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday

    The last day before Lent culminates a long series of joyous carnival events which vary in character from place to place. Koekebakken, or pancakes, and wafelen, or waffles, are Vastenavond delicacies in many households, for rich foods are indulged in everywhere before the rigors of fasting begin.

    Walloon farmers have a superstition that cabbage eaten on this day will prevent flies and caterpillars from destroying the cabbages growing in gardens.

    In some places boys and girls go about singing traditional ditties from door to door. In return, they receive such gifts as apples, nuts and strips of bacon. The children then go for a picnic, broiling their bacon on long willow spits and holding high holiday before Lent starts.

ERSTE ZONDAG VAN DEN VASTEN (First Sunday of Lent) First Sunday in Lent

    In some parts of the Ardennes the first Sunday in Lent is called the "Sunday of the Great Fires," because bonfires are built on the hilltops. For days preceding, children of Grandhalleux go from house to house begging wood for fires. If people refuse to give fuel, the children chase them next day and try to smudge their faces with ashes.

    When the fires are lighted, young people dance and sing about them. Later they leap over the embers with wishes for good crops, good luck in marriage and freedom from colic.

    Seven Lenten fires seen on this night are said to be protection against witches. Sometimes parents tell the children they will receive as many eggs at Easter as they can count fires on the first Sunday in Lent. According to old peasant belief, neglect to kindle "the great fire" means God will kindle it himself--that is, He will set fire to the house.

WITTE DONDERDAG (Holy Thursday) The Thursday preceding Easter

    On this day the chimes cease ringing in the church towers and people say, "The bells have flown to Rome."

    The Ceremony of Foot Washing is observed in many cathedral churches and in parishes which are endowed for the purpose by rich families. Twelve old men from "God's House," as the almshouse is called, are selected on account of their piety to enact the role of the Twelve Apostles. The clergy bathe the feet of the men and bestow bread and alms, in memory of Jesus, who washed the disciples' feet at the Last Supper.

GOEDE VRIJDAG (Good Friday) The Friday preceding Easter

    All churches are draped in black in memory of Jesus' Passion and a general air of gloom pervades the streets of towns and cities. In the villages peasant women often wear mourning on this day. In the afternoon everybody attends the three-hour Passion service.

ZATERDAG VOOR PASEN (Saturday before Easter) The Saturday preceding Easter

    The chimes that "flew to Rome" on Holy Thursday return the night before Easter. At the Saturday Glory Service they ring joyously throughout the land and parents tell the children that the bells "sow colored eggs in the gardens." In candy and pastry shops, also, one can plainly see the bells have paid a visit; for windows and show cases are filled with all kinds of beautiful bell creations in colored sugar, chocolate and marzipan--many of them decorated with artificial flowers or pretty ribbons--all of them delicious to eat.

    In some places boys and girls rise early on Easter morning to search for eggs in the gardens; in other districts egg hunts are a feature of the Saturday festivities. Eggs are either dyed in bright solid colors or else decorated with bird and flower designs. Every garden overflows with eggs, which are hidden in tree crotches, behind shrubs, in the grass, behird piles of stones. The children fill little baskets with their treasures. After exhausting the resources of their own gardens, the youngsters visit grandparents, uncles and aunts. Everywhere they go there are more eggs to hunt, for Belgian chimes are no less generous with Easter eggs than with their joyous Resurrection music.

SPEL VAN SINT EVERMARUS (Game of Saint Evermaire), in Rutten (Russon), province of Limburg May 1

    On May 1 the villagers of Rutten reenact the legend of Saint Evermaire and his seven companions who were murdered in the year 699, when on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The tale of horror--a twelve-hundred-year-old thriller--goes something like this:

    The pious Evermaire and his friends sought lodging at nightfall at a hospitable farmhouse (according to some, a chateau) in the environs of Tongres. The woman who received them was deeply impressed by the obvious sanctity of the eight pilgrims. Consequently she warned them against Hacco, her bandit husband, who was temporarily absent on a raid, but might soon return.

    The weary Evermaire and his comrades slept at the house, but rose at dawn and quietly slipped away on their journey. Hacco, meanwhile, had returned and learned, somehow or other, about his holy guests. He soon tracked them down in the forest nearby, killed the eight men and left their corpses on the ground where they fell.

    The game of saints and bandits celebrated in Rutten today commemorates the evil Hacco's massacre of Saint Evermaire and the seven good men. For upwards of ten centuries (the play did not start until some two hundred years after the event, we are told) inhabitants of Rutten and their descendants have faithfully presented the drama in all its gory detail.

    At about half past ten in the morning people gather for the religious procession at the Chapel of Saint Evermaire, and march about the casket with the saint's reputed bones. Then the statue of Saint Evermaire is borne aloft, followed by seven men representing the companions, and Saint Evermaire himself, carrying pilgrim staff and wearing knee breeches, white stockings and cockle-shell-embellished cape. A group of wlnged guardian angels follows protectingly.

    Fifty "brigands" riding heavy farm horses are led by Hacco, master villain, who wears a bright jacket with gold buttons. His band of desperados is dressed in white knee-breeches, red jackets and hats with red plumes. In the chapel meadow, where the play is given, the bandits charge furiously upon the holy men. After a good deal of dialogue and hymn singing the saint finally falls dead from an arrow, among the bodies of his slain companions.

PROCESSIE VAN HET HEILIG BLOED (Procession of the Holy Blood), in Bruges (Brugge), province of West Flanders The first Monday after May 2

    The city of Bruges annually holds an imposing procession in honor of the Sacred Blood. The ceremony originated in the year 1150, when Thierry d'Alsace, returning from the Second Crusade, brought to Bruges a phial said to contain a drop of Christ's blood.

    The sacred relic, preserved in a marvelously wrought gold chasse, or reliquary, is carried in procession from the Chapelle du Saint Sang to the Cathedral of Saint Sauveur. There the chasse is placed upon the altar during the celebration of solemn Pontifical Mass. The bishop reverently lifts the relic for veneration by all before it is again returned to its chapel.

    The procession is composed of many different floats, representing episodes of scriptural and historical interest. Marchers on foot and horseback accompany the tableaux which cover a wide variety of subjects, ranging all the way from Adam and Eve in the Garden to the crucifixion of Jesus. Both marchers and riders weave in and out among the scenes, while talking and singing as if acting parts on the stage.

    In the procession there are also pilgrims, members of church societies and religious orders, trade guilds and representatives of the Brotherhood of Sacred Blood. All groups carry their own banners and insignia. Last of all come the priests and high church dignitaries dressed in elaborate feast day robes and bearing the golden casket with the Sacred Blood. A reverent hush falls over the vast crowd, as spectators sink to their knees. The relic passes. Again the street takes on festival appearance. Church bells ring, street banners flutter, bands plav and all Bruges gives itself over to gaiety and joy.

SINT DYMPHNA or SAINTE DYMPHNE (Saint Dymphna), in Geel, province of Antwerp May 15

    Since the thirteenth century pilgrims have gone to Geel on May 15, to visit the tomb of Saint Dymphna, special guardian of the insane. During her Novena the saint's protection is sought against mental illness. Insane persons, or the friends or relatives who represent them, crawl nine times over Saint Dymphna's reputed sarcophagus, meanwhile invoking her blessing.

    Legend says that Dymphna, daughter of a seventh-century Irish king fled to Geel to escape her pagan father's insane demand for an incestuous marriage. The king pursued his daughter to Geel, where he beheaded her.

    Gradually people came to regard Dymphna as patroness of the mentally deranged. More and more sick patients were brought to the saint's tomb at Geel and were tenderly looked after by the townsfolk. Eventually a small infirmary was built next to the thirteenth-century Church of Saint Dymphna.

    The fame of the community grew through the centuries until, about 1850, Geel was placed under state medical supervision. Today Colony Geel is noted throughout the world for its humane and remarkably successful "boarding out" system, which cares for two thousand or more harmless mental patients as "paying guests" in homes of the inhabitants of Geel, or of neighboring communities. Provision is made for both pauper and well-to-do cases. All patients enjoy home life, healthful occupation and freedom, under the kindly supervision of carefully selected householders.

DE JEUNER MATRIMONIAL (Matrimonial Tea), in Ecaussines- Lalaing, province of Hainaut Whit Monday

    On this day young unmarried women of Ecaussines-Lalaing hold an amusing "matrimonial tea" in honor of "all the bachelors in the world." The gay event is supposed to have originated centuries ago when bachelors were scarce in the district.

    At nine in the morning all visiting unmarried men are welcomed at the Town Hall and invited to write their names in a big official guest book. Then there are receptions, speeches of welcome by local officials and pretty mesdemoiselles, sightseeing tours, band music, general laughter and merrymaking. Just to walk through the streets is fun because they are gaily decorated with streamers, pennants, and humorous verses appropriate to the occasion.

    At three in the afternoon the annual tea is announced. The affair is presided over by one of the young women who welcomes the bachelors in the name of her sisters--all the old maids of Ecaussines-Lalaing. The speech, accompanied by much hilarity, is followed by the "tea," which consists of coffee, beer, and special regional sweets.

    Of course, the affair does not end with the tea. Folk-dancing in the streets, band music and merrymaking far into the night, bring this popular festival of youth to a happy climax.

SINT MEDARDUS (Saint Medard)

   The anniversary of Saint Medard, sixth century Bishop of Vermand, is important in peasant weather lore. According to an old folk rhyme, rain on Saint Medard's Day means forty days of wet weather:

S'il pleut le jour de Saint Medard
Il pleut quarante jours plus tard.

SINT JANS VOORAVOND (Saint John's Eve) June 23

    In some places young people dance and sing about bonfires which they light on Saint John's Eve, the longest night in the year.

    Several days before the Eve groups of children go about from farm to farm, begging for firewood with this traditional song:

Wood, wood, lumber wood,
We come to get Saint John's wood.
Give us a little and keep a little
Until the Eve of Saint Peter's Day

    It is an old folk belief that embers from the Saint John's fires will protect homes and barns from fire during the coming year, and jumping over the lighted bonfires is considered an antidote against diseases of the stomach.

SINT PIETER (Saint Peter) June 29

    In some rural areas peasants recall Saint Peter's martyrdom by building bonfires. Nowadays the custom is gradually disappearing, but some years ago children trundled wheelbarrows from farm to farm in the neighborhood and begged wood for Saint Peter's fires.

    Old and young joined in building the fires, lighted in remembrance of the fire before which Saint Peter warmed himself when he denied Jesus. As flames leaped high, the children danced in a ring, singing:

Saint Peter, come and join us
In our circle of joy.

    Often people light candles on this night and say the rosary in commemoration of Saint Peter.

    Since Saint Peter is patron of fishermen the ceremony of Blessing the Sea is performed each year at Ostend, Blankenberge and other seaport towns, on the Sunday following the saint's day. All fishermen, mariners and others who are exposed to the dangers of water participate in the ceremonies. Following mass a procession of clergy, church dignitaries and seamen carry votive offerings, flowers and garlands to the shore. Then the priests enter the boats and go out to bless the waves.

BOETPROCESSIE VAN VEURNE (Procession of Penitence), in Furnes (Veurne), province of West Flanders Last Sunday in July

    It is said that the annual Procession of Penitence at Furnes originated in 1099, when the Crusader, Count Robert II of Flanders, returned from Jerusalem with a fragment of the True Cross.

    Today's solemn procession features episodes from the Passion story. Some are dramatized by actors playing the parts of various Old and New Testament characters; others by carved wooden figures, mounted on platforms and carried on the shoulders of penitents.

    Forty or more of the groups are introduced by angels or other characters who recite explanatory verses concerning scenes that are to follow.

    Horse-drawn floats, decorated cars and the colorful banners and standards of the organizing committee all form a part of the impressive procession. But the most moving figures of the spectacle are the black-hooded penitents, many of them barefoot, who bend and stagger under the heavy burden of full-sized wooden crosses. Both men and women are among the penitents. All wear coarse woolen robes and hoods having only slits for eyes. These people are not actors. They are seeking expiation from sin through bearing their crosses, even as Jesus bore his to Calvary.

    Last of all the Sacred Host appears, carried by several bishops. As the Sacrament passes, spectators kneel in adoration. A hush falls over the great crowd. Once the procession has returned to the Church of Saint Walburga from which it issued, however, all Furnes gives itself to the joy of a kermess (fair) in the market place.

MARIA-HEMELVAART DAG (Assumption of the Virgin Mary), in Hasselt, province of Limburg Third and fourth Sundays in August

    In Hasselt, capital of Limburg, the festival of Virga Jesse, Virgin of the Line of Jesse, is celebrated every seven years on the third and fourth Sundays in August. According to tradition, the image of the Virgin once stood in a forest tree, at the crossroads which mark the present site of Hasselt. Travelers left offerings at this shrine and prayed for a safe journey. Gradually reports of the image's miraculous powers spread until, by the fourteenth century, pilgrims from far and wide came to worship at the tree.

    Today the people of Hasselt in solemn procession carry through the town an ancient, blackened image of the Virgin, which they claim once stood in the crossroads tree. The procession proceeds under a series of arches, commemorating various dramatic episodes in the town's history.

    On Assumption Day (August 15) priests in some other parts of the province bless kruidjes, or bouquets made up of nine different kinds of flowers. Pious peasants preserve these bouquets throughout the year. At the approach of a bad storm they pull off a few flower petals and toss them into the fire, as everyone kneels and recites the opening lines of the Gospel according to Saint John.

LES VEPRES DE GOUYASSE (Marriage of Goliath), in Ath, province of Hainaut

    Practically every Belgian town and village has its giants, which are paraded through the streets on special occasions during the year. The annual wedding of Goliath, at Ath, is one of the most spectacular of these affairs. Many of the towering figures, which measure upwards of twenty feet, represent various biblical, historical or legendary characters. A man walks inside the figure, a peephole in front allowing him to get air, as well as to look out and see where he is going.

    Ath boasts many giants, which appear on different occasions. On the Saturday before the fourth Sunday in August the great event is the procession of Goliath, who, for centuries, has been the town's patron and protector. Goliath, wearing helmet and breastplate and carrying a mighty club, is accompanied to the Church of Saint Julien by Madame Goliath, who has long black tresses adorned with orange blossoms. The bride and bridegroom are escorted by other giants, including Samson bearing a broken column, a figure representing Mademoiselle Victoire, in gold crown and voluminous cape, and a hideous, mustachioed Ambiorix.

    In 1461 in the procession known as that of Saint Julien, a giant figure was introduced for the first time. As the years went by other figures were added from time to time by various local guilds. Among other characters there was the symbolic one Tiran, or Tyrant, who may have represented Ambiorix, leader of a Gaulish tribe.

    The procession of giants, accompanied by colorful floats representing symbolic and historical events, proceeds through the streets to the Church of Saint Julien. There Goliath and his bride remain standing on either side of the portals while the town officials enter the church for the singing of les vepres de Gouyasse.

    Following the religious ceremony the procession goes to the Gran' Place where the battle of David and Goliath is enacted by the recitation of traditional verses between David and Goliath. The play ends with this classic line spoken by Goliath:

    Je n'sus nieu co mort! "I am not dead yet!"

ALLER-HEILIGEN DAG (All Saints' Day) November 1

    On this day prayers are said in memory of all the saints who are not mentioned in the calendar. Toward evening the All Souls' Eve services begin. People visit cemeteries, decorate the graves with flowers and wreaths and light candles in memory of the deceased.

    The next day people eat special "All Souls'" cakes. According to one old superstition, "the more cakes you eat on this night, the more souls you can save from Purgatory."

SINT HUBERTUS VAN LUIK or SAINT HUBERT DE LIEGE (Saint Hubert of Liege), in St.-Hubert, province of Luxemburg November 3

    Saint Hubert, patron of dogs, the chase, and victims of hydrophobia, is especially honored in the Ardennes, where he is said to have experienced a miraculous vision. On his feast day people throughout the forest area near the little town of St.-Hubert bring their dogs to the Church of Saint Hubert for the priest to bless and sprinkle with holy water.

    The custom originated in a seventh-century legend about Hubert, a pleasure-loving, profligate young nobleman who devoted himself to the chase, to complete neglect of all church festivals. One Good Friday, when hunting in the Ardennes, he suddenly saw a pure white stag, with an illumined crucifix gleaming between his antlers. The supposed spot of this vision (which affected Hubert so powerfully that he renounced the world, became a monk, and eventually Bishop of Liege) is marked by a chapel on the farm of "La Converserie," about five miles from St.-Hubert.

    By the time of Hubert's death in 727, he was famed throughout the countryside for piety and good works. Saint Hubert's tomb (though not his bones, which once were hidden from enemy invaders and eventually lost) is in the Church of St.-Hubert. Annually thousands of devout pilgrims visit the shrine. In the church are reputed relics of the saint, including both hunting-horn and mantle. Even a shred of the latter, when placed on the head, is thought to cure sufferers from hydrophobia.

    Throughout Belgium many churches are dedicated to the saint. Saint Hubert's Mass on November 3, officially opens the hunting season. In some places housewives prepare special loaves of bread which are blessed at the early morning mass. The bread is then carried home, the sign of the cross is made, and everyone breaks fast by eating a piece of the blessed loaf. People feed the bread to dogs, horses and other animals as a protection against rabies throughout the year. According to an old folk-jingle:

I came all the way from Saint Hubert's grave,
Without stick, without staff,
Mad dogs stand still!
This is Saint Hubert's will.

SINT MAARTENS DAG (Saint Martin's Day) November 11

    Saint Martin is a popular saint to whom over four hundred Belgian churches are dedicated. His day is greatly anticipated by Belgian boys and girls, who celebrate the festival with processions, bonfires and general merrymaking.

    In some part of the country Saint Martin, like Saint Nicholas, calls in person on the feast day Eve and brings gifts to the children.

    If the boys and girls have been good he bestows apples and goodies; but if they have been bad he suggestively throws a whip on the floor.

    On the saint's day handfuls of apples and nuts are often tossed into the room while the boys and girls stand with faces turned toward the wall. In Veurne, Bruges and some other towns children carrying lighted lanterns march through the streets at nightfall. The young people sing Saint Martin songs and ask for gifts of goodies. Gauffres, little waffle-like cakes, are particularly popular on Saint Martin's Day.


    Children write annual letters to Saint Nicholas, the invisible gift-giver, whose black Moorish servant slips down the chimney on this night and leaves toys in the empty shoes set by the fireplace. The child's father always promises to post the letters because he alone knows how to reach the saint.

    Saint Nicholas rides a donkey and is attended by his assistant. The saint sees everything. He knows everything, but no child has ever seen or known him. The children leave carrots and pieces of bread in the chimney corner for Saint Nicholas' donkey who surely will be hungry from journeying across village housetops.

    In the evening parents and children sit close to the fire and tell stories about the life and works of Saint Nicholas, third century Bishop of Myra, who traditionally wears rich robes, gold miter, and an enormous bishod's ring on the left hand. The saint is the friend of all children, but special patron of little boys because of his legendary restoration to life of three small lads, whom a wicked inn-keeper killed, salted down in brine and then served for dinner.

    The children sing charming little songs in their saint's honor. Suddenly a shower of sweets flies through the door. Boys and girls scurry around under tables and chairs to capture their share of booty; but by the time the last bonbon is found, Saint Nicholas has vanished.

    The following day youngsters rise early and run to the chimney to see what the saint has left for them during the night. The shoes contain special treats such as an orange, a piece of marzipan, flat hard cakes known as klaasjes, perhaps an almond-filled letterbanket, or initial of the child's name. Speculaus, a kind of hard spicy gingerbread molded in the form of Saint Nicholas, is a seasonal delicacy all children anticipate. Often there are useful gifts, besides, such as a hand-knit sweater, a pair of bright warm mittens, a gay woolen muffler, or even a suit or pretty frock.

KERSTDAG (Christmas) December 25

    Christmas is a religious season observed by attending special services in the churches and wishing friends and neighbors a Merry Christmas. After midnight mass, the whole family gathers about the Christmas log to celebrate la veille de Noel (Christmas Eve). Ghost stories and tales are told, old ballads sung, and gin freely passed. Sometimes the gIn is lighted as the log falls to ashes. Many popular superstitions exist regarding Christmas Eve when, according to peasant belief, water turns to wine and people can look into the future.

    Children await Christmas morning eagerly. If they are good and have said their prayers faithfully throughout the year, the Angel Gabriel or, in some places, the Child Jesus, is thought to slip an engelskoek (angel's cake), a kind of a bun, under the pillows of sleeping boys and girls.

ALLERKINDERENDAG (Holy Innocents' Day) December 28

    December 28 is the traditional anniversary of the slaughter of Bethlehem's innocent children by Herod, who wished to be sure of killing the Infant Jesus. According to popular legend two of the unfortunate children were found buried in the Convent of Saint Gerard, in the province of Namur. In Belgium, as in some other countries, Holy Innocents' Day eventually became a time when children were allowed to play all sorts of tricks on their elders.

    In some places children try to put adults under lock and key and make them buy themselves out of bondage. Early in the morning the "innocents" attempt to get possession of all keys in the house. Whenever an unsuspecting grown-up enters a closet or room, he may unexpectedly find himself a prisoner. His freedom is not restored until he pays the forfeit the boys or girls demand--an orange, a toy, spending money, a sweet--the ransom varying with his keeper's whim. The adult who is held for ransom is called the "sugar uncle" or "sugar aunt."


    "Sylvester" is the nickname popularly applied to the lazy boy or girl who rises last on the final day of the year. Since "Sylvesters" traditionally have to pay a forfeit to their brothers and sisters, each child tries to be first to bound out of bed on the morning of December 31.

    Girls, especially, try to be industrious on this day because of the old saying that one who does not finish her handwork by sunset will remain an old maid throughout the year.

    All over Belgium the reveillon, or New Year's Eve family party, is a gay event. At midnight everyone kisses, exchanges good wishes for a Happy New Year and drinks toasts to absent relatives and friends. In the cities, cafes and restaurants are crowded with pleasure-seekers who eat, drink, and bid a noisy farewell to the Old Year.

Next: 2. Festivals of Denmark