Saint-Nicholas is coming to town

The 6th of December is a very special day for Children across the Low Countries. Children across Flanders and elsewhere in the Low Countries and Northern France will be leaving out their shoes before they go to bed on the evening of 5 December in the hope that they will find them full of treats when they wake up on the morning of 6 December. During the night Saint-Nicholas and is helper Black Peter will have worked flat out to ensure that all the children that have been good over the past year are rewarded with gifts of toys and sweets.

Over the past few weeks the Saint and his staff have received hundreds of thousands of letters from children detailing their gift requests. Whether it’s a new football, a Frozen costume or the latest Play Station game, Saint Nicholas with do his very best to deliver the goods.

A Low Countries’ tradition

The feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on 6 December. The feast is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on the morning of 6 December, Saint Nicholas Day, here in Belgium, the southern provinces of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France (French Flanders, Lorraine and Artois).

In the northern provinces of The Netherlands gifts are given during the evening of the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas on 5 December. The tradition is also celebrated in former Dutch colonies such as Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Suriname.

The Saint-Nicholas season gets under way each year in mid-November (the first Saturday after 11 November), when Saint-Nicholas arrives by steamboat supposedly from Spain. In Flanders this is always in Antwerp, while in the Netherlands a different port is chosen each year.

In Antwerp Saint Nicholas disembarks and parades through the streets welcomed by children cheering and singing traditional Saint-Nicholas songs. 

© VRT - Geert Van Hoeymissen

Meanwhile, his team of Black Peter assistants throw sweets and pepernoten, small, round biscuits that are a bit like gingerbread. The VRT broadcasts Saint-Nicholas’ arrival live on our television network Eén.

Following the Saint’s national arrival, other towns and municipalities celebrate Saint-Nicholas’ arrival locally. Local arrivals usually take place the same weekend as the national arrival or during the week that follows.

Once he has officially arrived Saint-Nicholas sets about visiting, schools, hospitals, community centres and shopping malls to meet his public.

Santa Claus based on Saint-Nicholas

The North American figure of Santa Claus is based on Saint-Nicholas. Some claimed that during the American War of Independence, the inhabitants of New York, a city that was founded by the Dutch as New Amsterdam, reinvented their Saint Nicholas tradition, as Saint Nicholas was a symbol of the city's non-British past.

However, most historians agree that the revival of the Saint-Nicholas tradition in America came with the stories of the writer essayist and diplomat Washington Irving.

Washington Irving's stories prominently featured legends of the early Dutch settlers. In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon, a creation others would later dress up as Santa Claus.

Top stories