I can't go into much detail about the holiday right now-- it's a school night-- but I want to at least post a few pictures and give an overview of what it's about. Also, I don't want to get too technical in each of the facts, because the details differ a lot on who you talk to. I'll give the story that I've heard from my host family-- it's very simple.
Here's the story that they showed me-- it's an old poem in French about how Saint Nicolas saved the children. Below it is a (not-completely-direct-but-you-get-the-idea) translation into English.
Saint NICOLAS (La Légende de Saint Nicolas)
Ils étaient trois petits enfantsIls n'étaient pas sitôt entrés
Qui s'en allaient glaner aux champs—
S'en vinr'nt un soir chez un boucher:
"Boucher, voudrais-tu nous coucher?"—
Entrez, entrez, petits enfants,
Il y'a d'la place assurément! . . .
Que le boucher les a tués,
Les a coupés en p'tits morceaux,
Mis au saloir comme pourceaux.
Ils étaient, etc.Saint Nicolas, au bout d'sept ans,
Vint à passer dedans ce champ,
Alla frapper chez le boucher:
"Boucher, voudrais-tu me loger?"
Ils étaient, etc.— Entrez, entrez, saint Nicolas,
Il y'a d'la place, il n'en manq'pas."
Il n'était pas sitôt entré
Qu'il a demandé à souper.
Ils étaient, etc."Du p'tit salé je veux avoir
Qu'il y a sept ans qu'est dans l'saloir."
Quand le boucher entendit ça,
Hors de la porte il s'enfuya.
Ils étaient, etc."Boucher, boucher, ne t'enfuis pas;
Repens-toi, Dieu t'pardonnera."
Saint Nicolas alla s'asseoir
Dessus le bord de ce saloir.
Ils étaient, etc."Petits enfants qui dormez là,
Je suis le grand saint Nicolas."
Et le saint étendit trois doigts.
Les p'tits se lèvent tous les trois.
Ils étaient, etc.
The Legend of Saint Nicholas
freely translated from the French
Three little children sought the plain
Gleaners of the golden grain.
They lingered past the angel-song,
And dewy shadows swept along.
'Mid the silence of the wood
The butcher's lonely cottage stood,
"Butcher! lodge us for the night,
Lodge us till the morning light."
"Enter in, ye children small,
I can find a place for all."
The butcher seized a knife straitway,
And did the little creatures slay.
He put them in a tub of brine,
In pieces small as they were swine.
St. Nicholas, at seven years end,
His way did to the forest wend.
He sought the butcher's cottage drear:
"Butcher! I would rest me here!"
"Enter! enter, St. Nicholas!
You are welcome, St. Nicholas!
Enter! enter, St. Nicholas!
There's place for you the night to pass."
Scarce had the Saint his entrance made,
He would the supper board was laid.
"Will you have of ham a slice?"
"I will not, for it is not nice!"
"Of this veal you'll take a bit?"
"No! I do not relish it."
"Give me of the little swine,
For seven long years have laid in brine!"
The butcher caught the words he said,
And forthwith from the portal fled.
"Butcher! butcher! do not flee,
Repent and God will pardon thee!"
St. Nicholas the tub drew near,
And lo! he placed three fingers there.
The first one said, "I sweetly rest!"
The second said, "I too am blest!"
The third replied, "Tis well with me,
In Paradise I seem to be!"
Freely translated from the French by English poet James Henry Dixon (1803–1876), Centro Studi Nicolaiani, Bari, Itlay, 1983.
Anyway-- it's a little greusome, but there you go. Gives you a basic idea of the background. Again, the butcher story is what my host family says is the right one-- I'm pretty sure there are many others others, though, depending who you ask.
Anyway, on (or around, depending if it's a weekday or not--he came yesterday for us because we didn't have school) the sixth of December, Saint Nicolas comes to each house, on a donkey, and enters through the chimney.
He brings bunches of gifts to the kids of each family--candy, speculoos cookies, tangerines, (of course) chocolate and toys, just as long as the children have been good throughout the year.
Sometimes, younger children will write him a letter, making sure he knows they've been good and asking him for specific gifts. The address, in case you're interested, is this:
Rue du Paradis, 1
I've heard that if someone writes him a letter, he answers....
If they hadn't been good, Père Fouettard, back in the olden days, accompanied Saint Nicolas with a whip, to spank the children who had been naughty. For obvious reasons, he's not around anymore now.
Like I said, each of these details changes depending who you talk to. There's some people who say he comes on a horse; some people don't agree that he comes in through the chimney; some people don't believe at all the story about the butcher.
There really are a lot of parallels between him and Santa Claus, but don't confuse the two. Saint Nicolas was the precursor to Santa Claus-- the Dutch settlers in the Americas are said to have brought the tradition, which evolved into Santa Claus. But here, Saint Nicolas comes only on the 6th, and Père Noël comes on Christmas eve. So people here are happy to say that they get "double the presents" as the rest of the world.
I saw Saint Nicolas a few different times-- he comes around this time of year, visiting. So he doesn't come only one day-- he's like Santa Claus in that you see him a lot.
I was in Namur (hour on the train from Linkebeek), and I saw him on one of the streets...
At a reunion we had with AFS...
At the Linkebeek Maison Communale...
...with a line for the photos.
Yesterday he came by our house!
I got the poinsetta in the foreground, along with some candy I'd never tried before. Diego got an iPod charger; Gaëtan got a pair of pajamas, and Quentin got a little remote controlled airplane.
Here's a speculoos cookie shaped like St. Nicolas-- it was delicious on a pistolet, the belgian name for a round little loaf of bread. It was a new taste sensation-- I've never tried a cookie on a slice of bread. Lots of carbs, I'm sure-- not a good idea to eat it every day.
Quentin with his plate of sucre
Today, Saint Nicolas came to our class! After we sang the Saint Nicolas song, he tossed us some candy
Ô grand Saint Nicolas,
Patron des écoliers,
Apportez-moi des sucres
Dans mon petit panier.
Je serai toujours sage
Comme un petit mouton.
Je dirai ma prière
Pour avoir des bonbons.
Venez, venez, Saint Nicolas,
Venez, venez Saint Nicolas,Venez, venez, Saint Nicolas, Tra la la...
I also got my photo taken with him, which I don't have yet. But once I get it, I'll be posting it!
Alors, merci, Saint Nicolas!