Being a military family, you often find yourself in unfamiliar settings. For instance, we are stationed in Belgium and have tried to immerse ourselves and our children in the local lifestyle. Our kids attend a local school and have actually become fluent in the local language (Dutch). We see the traditions of our community taking hold within our children which we absolutely love. I mean, what is the point of being stationed overseas if you aren’t going to take full advantage of the opportunity. It’s not always an easy or comfortable situation but over the last two years we have found our way through. This will be our third Christmas season here and we finally feel like we have the hang of it.
In Belgium, the end of November through the beginning of January is a big deal. It’s a time of family, celebration and a whole lot of eating from what I can tell. Around the time of our Thanksgiving, Belgium and the surrounding European countries start Christmas Markets. These markets are a huge deal and people wait (and plan) all year on when and where they will go. Just this past weekend we hit up the Christmas Market in Aachen, Germany. It was cold and packed full of people, but such a beautiful sight. These markets are where people gather to buy Christmas presents, decorations, drink Glühwein (a wine served hot) and just enjoy their time. Granted, when so many people are surrounding me then my anxiety sky rockets but I am able to enjoy it for an hour or so therefore we try to hit at least a couple during the season. My favorite market is in the Netherlands but I’m saving that for another post this month…I’m hoping to get to visit it in the next week or so. I’ll keep you updated!
Another wonderful tradition that we have decided to carry on for our children is Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, is not the same as Santa Claus. Sinterklaas resembles the actual Catholic Saint of Children and wears the robe and such. Here, Sinterklaas is believed to live in Spain and every November he gets on his steam boat with all his Zwarte Piets, or black Pete’s, and heads for Belgium. Now it has been said that Zwarte Piet is a racial figure; however, when you speak to locals they simply see him as a character just like elves are in the US. They believe that Piet is black because he is actually the one that goes down the chimneys and leaves the kids presents so he has turned black from the soot in the chimney. (I’m not supporting either side, simply passing along the info on the tradition.) Anyway, once Sinterklaas and all his Piets arrive by boat, Sinterklaas then gets on his horse and starts his journey around to all the little children. He visits schools, markets and even shops. Then on the night of December 5th, the children leave out their shoe with a picture (or list) of what they want, along with carrots for the horse and whatever else they want to give to Sinterklaas and Piet. Then the kids wake up on December 6th to presents and of course chocolates if they have been good.
This was the first year that my kids really grasped the idea of Sinterklaas so we made sure to carry on the tradition. Plus, I did not want to send my kids to school tomorrow and have them feel left out while all the other kids talked about what Sinterklaas brought them. I spoke with a lot of local friends and the gifts really range because they also do gifts for Christmas here and even for New Years! So, my husband and I decided to give an outfit, coloring book, puzzle and some fun Christmas accessories to wear. Then of course they got a bag full of chocolates. I mean, I can’t go too overboard if I want to have presents from mommy & daddy plus Santa Claus for Christmas Day! While the kids had off school today, my husband still had to work (we are the US military, not Belgian) so I videoed the whole opening for him so he didn’t feel left out. That is one downfall to being overseas and trying to incorporate your host nation traditions…our holiday days aren’t always the same. Thank goodness for smart phones and digital cameras though!
Now, don’t get too in a bunch because Belgians have also incorporated Santa for the most part. Well at least from what I can tell in our local area. Even if they don’t have Santa, they still celebrate Christmas and give presents then as well so the kiddos still get Christmas break. Christmas Eve is actually the big celebration here though. They do your typical Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. Unlike a lot of Europeans though, they do not fast or cut out meat. They actually enjoy a big meal which often includes turkey. As a family, we are sticking to our tradition for Christmas and the kids are allowed one present to open on Christmas Eve and then they will wake up Christmas morning to a crazy amount of fun and we like to make lasagna for Christmas dinner. We do turkey for Thanksgiving and my kids are suckers for Italian food. My Italian roots run deep…what can I say. 🙂
There are big celebrations for New Years as well but honestly, my focus has been on this current time. We attended the Sinterklaas visit to my kid’s school, Sinterklaas made his stop by our house last night and enjoyed a beer while Piet enjoyed a cup of coffee and now we are preparing for Santa Claus’ arrival. We have strong believe that you should try to incorporate your host nation’s traditions when possible. Emerge yourself in the culture and find out why they do things the way they do. It will help for you to see things in a better light. Often times we judge things on face value and if it’s not our way (or the American way) then it’s just not right. I feel that couldn’t be further from the truth. I wasn’t sure about Sinterklaas or even why we should celebrate this holiday but finding out that it’s his birthday and instead of getting presents, he give presents to all the little kids…now that is something I feel my kids should learn and know. And I made sure to tell them all about it because giving is so much better than receiving.
Enjoy this holiday season. Remember what it’s really about and do something nice for someone each day. I promise, it will not only make you feel better but the kindness you express will pay it forward.
I want to wish you a Merry Christmas! <3