In Belgium, there are actually two Santa Claus figures. For the Dutch-speaking community, there’s Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, and for the French-speaking community, there’s Pere Noel, or Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas brings children presents on December 6th, St. Nicholas’s Day. The night before, children leave their shoes in front of the fireplace, along with a gift for St. Nicholas, his horse, and his mischievous helper, Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. Some of the gifts left for St. Nicholas include tangerines, gingerbread, chocolate, and mokjes, or cookies in the shape of letters.
During the night, St. Nicholas arrives on the rooftop on his horse with his helpers. If the children have been good, Black Peter climbs down the chimney and leaves them presents in and around their shoes. If the children have been bad, he leaves sticks instead.
Belgians also celebrate Advent, which is the period of four Sundays before Christmas celebrating the coming of Jesus. Advent wreaths and crowns are made from fir or leylandii greenery, with four candles, each candle lit represents a week counting down to Christmas.
Belgians decorate their towns, homes, and Christmas trees with lights, baubles, garlands, reindeer, even even likenesses of St. Nick himself. Nativity scenes can be found next to the tree. Life-size nativities may be found in the garden. Some churches even have a nativity with real animals!
On Christmas Eve, a special meal is eaten. It begins with a drink and nibbles, such as crisps, mini-pizzas, or soup, followed by a starter course like seafood, and then a main course of game, like stuffed turkey or chicken. For dessert, there’s the traditional Christmas Log, made of sponge roll layered with chocolate butter cream made to resemble a yule log. Christmas presents are placed underneath the tree to be opened in the morning. In Walloon districts, a special sweet bread called cougnou, made in the shape of baby Jesus, is eaten for Christmas breakfast.
On New Year’s Eve, another large meal is eaten, and even more presents are exchanged. They countdown to the new year, and wish each other the best for the coming year, and reign in the new year with fireworks and celebration. On New Year’s Day, children read their New Years Letters for their parents.
On the 6th of January, Belgians celebrate Epiphany. Children dress as the three magi and go door-to-door singing songs, and the homeowner’s give them money or sweets. One tradition is the Three Wise Men Pie called the Galette des rots, decorated with a gold paper crown on top. A bean, or small plastic figure is hidden inside, and whoever finds it gets to wear the crown, and becomes the king or queen for the day.
Yields 2 Loaves
For the loaves:
8 cups all-purpose flour, plus flour for kneading
5 tsp. active dry yeast
8 oz. (2 sticks) softened butter
1¼ cups warm milk
2 tsp. salt
6 large eggs, room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
¾ cup raisins
1 cup and 2 tsp. coarse sugar crystals
For the glaze:
3 egg yolks
3 tsp. milk
Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl, create a well in the mixture, and pour the warm milk into the well. Add the yeast and allow it to sit for 10 minutes. Add the eggs, granulated sugar, and cinnamon, and beat the mixture, gradually adding in butter
Dust a work surface with flour, move the dough onto the surface, and knead it until it no longer sticks. Place the dough into a greased bowl, cover it with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and allow it to rise for 1 hour, or until it has doubled in size.
Return the dough to the work surface and knead in the raisins and sugar crystals. Lightly grease 2 cookie sheets, divide the dough into 6 balls, and divide them into two sets of 3 and place each set on a sheet. In both sets, connect the 3 balls, representing the legs, body, and head of the infant Jesus. Allow the loaves to rise until they have doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 430° Fahrenheit. Combine the egg yolks with the 3 teaspoons of milk, and brush the loaves with this mixture. Sprinkle the loaves with the 2 tablespoons of sugar crystals and bake them for 25 minutes, or until they’re golden brown.