Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jolly ol' St. Nicholas...

I have to admit that when we started planning our holidays I was pretty disappointed that we were not going to be heading back to the States for Christmas. I have very fond memories of Christmases in Texas and no matter where we have lived, I have always been a little homesick regardless of the city we were living in at the time. However, as the kids started getting older, it was much easier to think more creatively with regards to where to spend the holidays. Not only did you not have to pack an entire nursery of clothes, diapers, strollers, car seats, etc. for a trip to Grandma's house, but you didn't have to think up a creative answer to that inevitable question: How will Santa find us?

As Thanksgiving came to an end, I started looking forward to the next holiday - just like my kids. Being in Europe, I knew that there were so many new customs to learn, and I really wanted to identify new traditions for our family so that we could truly embrace the culture of our new home. I honestly wasn't too surprised when shortly before Thanksgiving all of the Christmas decorations popped up in the malls. While there are the few holdout retailers, Christmas shopping season seems to get earlier each year. What I hadn't considered are the variations in holidays. While we have grown up waiting anxiously for Christmas Eve for the arrival of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas begins visiting children in the Grand Duchy in late November to see if they have been good or bad, and the kids need only wait until December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) to find out the verdict.

So, with St. Nicholas Day quickly approaching, it is no wonder that the stores were decked out in holiday cheer so early in our sense of the season. The grocery stores quickly filled up on the traditional cookies, candies and breads: Speculoos cookies that originated from Holland, truffles and St. Nicholas-shaped chocolate figures (I'm sure Belgium had an influence there), and Stollen from Germany (what many Americans would consider a lighter form of fruitcake). You can also find the yule log cakes commonly found in France. So, I had to ask myself - How do they celebrate St. Nicholas Day in Luxembourg? And, how does this differ from our traditional Christmas celebration in the U.S.?

Klees'chen spotted at a Lux wine tasting.
Well, I spent one Sunday evening researching this holiday. Luxembourg has the unique prospective of having a holiday season that blends all of the best traditions of its' neighboring countries, but still retains a little unique spin. In Luxembourg, St. Nicholas (or Klees'chen, as he is known here) begins visiting children around the middle of November. He can be seen at the malls, just like the American version where you can have your picture taken with him while reciting your dream list of gifts. However, he can also show up at wine festivals or business locations. I can only assume his review of human behavior also extends to adults in this case. He is generally accompanied by his sidekick Houseker; otherwise known as Black Peter. In case, like me, you have never heard of Black Peter, let me give you a little background. The story goes that Black Peter was an evil butcher who wanted to boil some young children and make them into nice, juicy sausages. Yes, you read that right. Klees'chen is believed to have saved the children from their wurst fate through a bit of divine intervention. As a result of his failed attempt, Black Peter was dealt the final fate of following Klees'chen from town to town, carrying switches so that he can deal with those children who have managed their way onto the Naughty List. During the days leading up to St. Nicholas' Day, children put their shoes next to the fireplace or radiator in hopes that Klees'chen will leave a treat or two on his way through town. Basically, they are hoping for a sign that perhaps they have managed to avoid that daunting list.

On the night before St. Nicholas' Day, Luxembourg children put out a plate (sometimes with carrots for Klees'chen's donkey), in hopes that he will bring them yet some more treats. In the past, that meant oranges, nuts and maybe that pair of socks they were longing for. Now days the grocery stores are chock full of every candy and cookie vendor's version of a St. Nicholas-shaped goody. As for the socks - well, they have likely been replaced by any number of toy options.

I won't go into all of the various versions of St. Nicholas Day that are celebrated in this part of Europe. If you are interested in reading up on the customs, gives a great description of the holiday as it is celebrated by various countries. Personally, I find the Netherlands to be the most interesting version. Furthermore, if you want to read a more humorous viewpoint of the Dutch holiday, the article written by David Sedaris is quite amusing.

Well, December 6th has come and gone. Klees'chen did manage to find us here in Luxembourg and left the boys a very chocolatey welcome to their new home. Now, the countdown has begun for the arrival of the next fat, jolly man's visit on the 24th. Thankfully this one is only accompanied by 9 tiny reindeer - one with a glowing red nose. Try explaining that story to young children when you no longer have a fireplace :)


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