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Christmas in Belgium: Elaborate Christmas Traditions
The Grand Palace in Brussels lit up against a night sky and decorated for the holiday season.
It’s been said that if Belgium were a food and especially a snack, then it most certainly would be a walnut because it consists of two distinct halves.
It’s tempting to add: the walnut should be encased in a grand layer of Belgium’s world-renowned chocolate, for as many visitors have remarked: the country is richer and sweeter for its harmonious culture, which is proudly on display during Christmas time.
The Kingdom of Belgium, with a population of only about 10 million people, is really a country of two distinct cultures. Flanders lies in the northern portion of the country and its people, called Flemings, speak Flemish, which is a form of Dutch. Wallonia lies in the southern portion of the country and its people, called Walloons, speak French. As expected, the two groups refer to their country by different names; Flemings call Belgium “Belgie” while Walloons call it “La Belgique.”
The walnut of different names is not exactly cut in equal halves, since the Flemish actually comprise 70 percent of Belgium. But this clear majority hardly gives the region the proverbial upper hand. It’s not uncommon for Belgians to live in one region and work in the other – one reason why bilingual road signs often post street names and directions in both Dutch and French. The “walnut,” alas, innately understands that its sum is greater than its two parts.
Fittingly, the capital city of Brussels lies almost exactly in the middle of Flanders and Wallonia, and it serves to unite many cultural aspects of the country, especially during Christmas in Belgium.
Brussels is the exciting heart of Belgium’s most elaborate Christmas tradition, the Christmas Market. Nearly 250 wooden chalets are built around the Bourse (Brussels’ stock exchange), where merchants sell hand-made gifts, candles, Christmas ornaments, spiced wine, Belgium chocolate, the country’s equally famous brewed beer and toasted Belgium waffles. The country’s namesake breakfast delights are one step closer to heaven when they are covered with a sugar glaze, dusted with powdered sugar and topped with ice cream and strawberries.
Christmas in Belgium Draws Visitors to the Christmas Market
Entertainment also draws visitors to the Christmas Market, where wandering artists draw portraits, musicians stage nightly concerts and choirs invite novices to join them in singing familiar Christmas carols. An illuminated “big wheel” (Ferris wheel) lights up the bright sky as skaters circle a 200-foot-long skating rink at the end of the nearly 1.5-mile “winter wonderland.” British tour operators call the Belgium Christmas Market “Europe's most original Christmas market” – heady praise considering that Germany’s Christkindlmarkets have long set the standard and ambiance for outdoor, open-air holiday markets.
St. Nicholas and Pere Noel, the two figures who are most strongly associated with Christmas in Belgium – and its Dutch and French people – both appear at the Christmas Market. They meet with children from their respective region on December 4, making inquiries about their behavior and eliciting their wishes for candy and toys. The benevolent men return on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, to reward the “good” children who leave shoes or baskets outside their bedroom doors. (Rumor has it that St. Nicholas and his French counterpart are known to particularly appreciate the thoughtful child who leaves him a frothy beer, as many Belgian children are instructed to do.)
The Dutch-speaking people of Flanders are known to make a bit more fuss over St. Nicholas than the French-speaking people of Wallonia do over Pere Noel. The bishop-like figure often arrives by boat or train to lead a lively parade through adoring towns. Such fanfare is likely due to the fact that St. Nicholas is a saint and a feast day during Christmas in Belgium is named in his honor, though both Flanders and Wallonia are predominately Roman Catholic.
The differences between the two regions truly emerge over Christmas cuisine, fish and crustaceans are prominent in Flemish cuisine while Walloon cuisine tends to be more substantial and spicier. On Christmas Eve, dessert serves as the great equalizer. Called kerststronk in Flemish and “'la bûche de Noël' in Walloon, the Christmas log made of a sponge cake layered with cream and covered with chocolate butter cream is always a Belgian favorite.
On Christmas Day, Flemish families greet each other with “Vrolijk Kerstfeest.” While in Walloon, they say, “Djoyeus Noyé” before sitting down to a favorite Belgian meal: waterzooi (pronounced VAH-tuhr-zoy),which is a hearty stew of fish or chicken, vegetables, herbs, eggs and cream.
Belgians also are partial to eating game during Christmas in Belgium. The menu might include venison, rabbit and boar; seafood, including trout, perch, turbot, shrimp and eel; and side dishes like stoemp (similar to mashed potatoes) and, naturally, Brussels sprouts.
Belgium’s “national pride” – its chocolate – is often on abundant display on Christmas Day. Traditional Belgian chocolates, known as pralines, are filled with cream, liqueur, nuts or ganache. They are considered to be the best chocolates in the world, though fruits de mer -- French for “fruit of the sea” -- are seriously sweet rivals. These seashell-shaped candies are a tantalizing mixture of chocolate and ground hazelnuts.
But it wouldn’t be Christmas in Belgium – in Flanders or Wallonia – without the specialty beers that Belgians have brewed since the Middle Ages. This is a country that has elevated beer to a science as well as an art form by creating more than 650 varieties and manufacturing beer mugs in various different shapes and sizes – each designed to enhance the flavor of the beer that it is intended to hold.
Making a final, late-night beer toast underscores another well-known truism about this northwest European country: that “it takes only three Belgians to make a party.” Whether they celebrate in Flanders or Wallonia or right in the middle in Brussels, Belgians prove time and time again: they form a surprisingly homogenous walnut throughout the year and especially during Christmas in Belgium.
Beer Lovers. < http://www.visitbelgium.com/belgianbites/beer.html >
Belgium. < http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/belgium/ >
Burgan, Michael. Belgium: Enchantment of the World. New York: Children’s Press, 2000.
Christmas in Belgium. < http://santas.net/belgianchristmas.htm >
Christmas in Belgium. < http://www.whychristmas.com/cultures/belgium.shtml >
Christmas in Belgium. < http://www.worldofchristmas.net/christmas-world/belgium.html >
Christmas Market. < http://visitbrussels.be/bitc/BE_en/minisite_winterwonders/christmas-market.do >
Christmas Markets. < http://www.visitbelgium.com/?page=christmas-markets >
Van Cleaf, Kristin. Belgium. Edina: ABDO Publishing Company, 2008.
Walker, Ida. The European Union: Belgium. Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers, 2006.