06 December 2007

Saint Nicholas and the little pigs

Today is the 6th of December, the day on which children here in Belgium wake up to find that Saint Nicholas has come to their house, bishop's mitre and all squeezed down the chimney, and left them some goodies in their shoes. He comes accompanied by a donkey and a man named Pere Fouettard, which roughly translates to Father Whipper. Fouettard is black, due to sliding down the chimney first, he bears a whip, and he's looking for bad kids. Nothing like a little crack of the whip to warm the Christmas spirit!

One of the day's beloved Christmas songs involves three little children who get killed and chopped up like sausage by a butcher, and all of that within the first two stanzas. Saint Nicholas comes to find them seven years later and wakes them up from their salty nap. They say they feel great, and are then alive to run around the countryside again. In some versions, the butcher becomes Pere Foettard and ends up as Nicholas' sidekick.

Besides the kids being chopped up like little pigs, the stores are full of little marzipan pigs. Turns out it's not because of the song, but because pigs are symbols of prosperity (think piggy banks, and also the days when families fattened their pig all year long and then killed it right around Christmastime).

Much of this I learned from my French professor in today's class, and we listened to the song with the lyrics in front of us, so I am confident this was not a question of misunderstanding. She was very nice and brought us chocolate and a special Belgian Christmas bread vaguely shaped like a baby Jesus, but she also started making crazy claims about the US and Santa Claus, one of which was to state that America is a mostly Catholic country.

This is not the first time professors and others have made wildly incorrect assertions about the US. I think it's normal for people to have stereotypes and preconceptions about other countries that must sometimes be dispelled. But I think in the case of good old America, people believe themselves to be knowledgeable about the place because of cultural exports like movies, products, and so on, even though they have never been there. So a false confidence causes some false assumptions to be believed. Which can be rather annoying to someone who finds herself in the position of trying to explain what the (crazily diverse and geographically huge) country of America is actually like. Anyway, I have now officially gotten off on a tangent! Back to the bishop born in Turkey who became a symbol of goodwill and presents. Mostly presents.

So how did we celebrate Saint Nicholas here in our little household? The Mister came home bearing a huge speculoos cookie (a cinnamon Belgian specialty) in the shape of Saint Nicholas. I had also purchased Nicholas cookies, wrapped them, and placed them in his shoes. Yes, we got each other the same thing! It was kind of like The Gift of the Magi, but without me cutting off my hair or him selling his watch. The poverty is there though, because this month's paycheck has been lost. It never arrived in the bank, and M's employer insist they made the payment. We are in dire straits, so much so that we debated whether or not to buy a two-euro sandwich on our way home last night (from seeing Lorin Maazel conduct Beethoven's 9th! for free!) and had to beg off paying rent for a few days while we wait for people in Spain to finish partying. (M's employer is incommunicado because today is one of its numerous holidays, and since there's only one day between today and the weekend, why, they take that day off too! So no contact until Monday.)

For further amusing tales of wacko Christmas traditions from around the world (why does this holiday seem to inspire such specific and bizarre practices?), I recommend listening to David Sedaris in this episode or this episode of This American Life. Too bad he doesn't get to the Catalans and their pooping log.

1 comment:

Bess/Luke said...

what a time of year for them to lose your paycheck! did it turn out ok? did they find it? or resend it?
~bess