Being a child in Flanders is a good gig. Every year on 6 December Sinterklaas, the patron saint of children, pays a visit accompanied by a huge sack of presents and his faithful, un-PC helper Zwarte Piet.
Originally a Turkish bishop, St Nicholas was renowned for saving children from a life of prostitution and resurrecting them from the dead. He wore a red bishop’s robe, sported a long white beard, carried a big book containing every child’s name and rode a white horse called Amerigo across the rooftops – sound familiar? He may have traded old Amerigo for Rudolph, but Sinterklaas is unmistakably the current mythical figure known as Santa Claus in the UK and the US. The mix up came about when English settlers arrived in New Amsterdam (modern-day New York) and mistook the Dutch pronunciation of ‘Sinterklaas’ for ‘Santa Claus’.
According to legend, St Nicholas did not have numerous elves to help him; he had only one assistant, Zwarte Piet – the devil. During the 19th-century, when the slave trade was at its peak, this element of the tale morphed into ‘black Pete’, an African servant. This idea was eventually replaced with the less emotive idea that Pete’s face was blackened from soot after climbing down chimneys to deliver presents.
Today, Flemish kids still leave a shoe under the chimney or outside the front door in the hope that Sinterklaas will visit. If they have been good they will awake to find the shoe filled with chocolate, often shaped in the first letter of the child’s name, or marzipan fruit, but if they have been bad the shoe will be filled with salt.