Thursday, December 6, 2012

Happy Klees'chen Day!

The 6th of December is a special day in Luxembourg - the celebration of St. Nicolas.  I assume that many Americans think St. Nick is just another name for Santa Claus.  I did.

Turns out, it's not that simple. At least in Luxembourg it's not.

As our kids are in the local schools and we'd like to incorporate a little Luxembourgish tradition into our lives, we wanted to find out what we're "supposed" to do for December 6th.  I knew there was no school the elementary grades this day, that it's kind of a big deal, and that Daphne and James were talking and singing songs about "Klees'chen" beginning in sometime in November.  We soon deduced that this is the Luxembourgish name for St. Nicolas.

The St. Nicolas Center website is a great resource for St. Nick background and traditions.

Here is an excerpt from the Luxembourg page at the St. Nicolas Center website:

"During November, St. Nicolas, known as Klees'chen, comes to Luxembourg to check and see if the children deserve any presents. He is also found in shops where children have pictures taken with him. For days and weeks before St. Nicolas Day on December 6th, children put their shoes or slippers on the windowsill or in front of their bedroom doors. During the night, St. Nicolas may drop chocolates or other sweets into the shoes as he travels around learning about children's behavior. He also visits school classrooms.

On the Eve of St. Nicholas Day, children put a plate on the table for St. Nicolas to fill with sweets when he comes with gifts. A donkey carries the toys and sweets and Nicolas is accompanied by angels or maye Housécker (Black Peter or Père Fouettard) who brings a bag of switches. In the past, Nicholas' gifts were oranges, nuts, and perhaps a pair of socks. Now, however, they might be Lego sets or even fancy electronics, as St. Nicholas Day is the primary day for gift giving."

As mentioned above, Klees'chen has sidekicks, which vary from country to country, but many are a version of a character called "Black Peter." Black Peter ranges anywhere from playful and jester-like:
a Dutch Zwarte Piet (yes, there's been a lot of controversy in recent years about this one) - source: Wikipedia a character much more sinister that resembles the Grim Reaper...
a Luxembourgish Housecker.  source: sycamore stirrings
You can read about all the different iterations here.  For now, I'll include one more...

found this set at the local hypermarket.  A Black Peter rides on the back.  In some traditions, St. Nick arrives on a boat from Madrid.  No, I didn't buy it.
You're probably already catching on to how navigating Klees'chen Day is not as simple following the instructions on the Luxembourg St. Nick page.  In a nutshell, the way people celebrate the December holidays in Luxembourg is as diverse as the country itself.  As far as I know, if you are Luxembourgish through and through, December 6th is the day that gifts are exchanged, and nothing of the sort happens on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, whether or not you celebrate the birth of Jesus at that time.  Yet "Luxembourgish through and through" only describes a handful of the population, even in the local schools. 

When I asked a few expat friends from various countries who have their kids in local schools about their traditions, this unfortunately only left me more confused.   Some consider St. Nick and Santa Claus two completely different fellows, and invoke each one on his respective "eve."  Sometimes the two guys even know each other and trade notes on the kids' behavior!  Some do boots, some stockings, some shoes, some slippers...some do chocolates, some coins, some small gifts, some big gifts, some sticks, some coal....  I figured that some Catholics in the U.S must celebrate a more traditional St. Nicolas, but now I know that in some cities, particularly in the the midwestern United States, St. Nick and his traditions are very widely practiced on the 6th.

What's especially tricky is that although we'd like to embrace the traditions of our newly-adopted country, our little family has never even done Santa, and would rather not start.  I will restrain myself from ranting against Mr. Claus and the whole "system" surrounding the guy, but suffice it to say, we'd just rather take a pass, and that it doesn't actually have much to do with the fact that we are Christian and do celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas.  We exchange gifts on Christmas, but they're all from real people.  Thus, it's basically the same deal for us with Klees'chen - Luxembourgish tradition or not, we'd rather not elaborately lie to tell the kids he's real/currently alive and that he's really checking to see if they're bad or good and bringing them stuff accordingly.  (Ok, so I mostly restrained myself).

Last weekend Pete took the kids to the grocery store, and to their surprise, a Klees'chen greeted them at the door with a box containing crackers, juice, and some chocolate.  I admit, I'm still on Pete's case for not snapping a picture, but according to him, the Klees'chen quickly disappeared.  Hmm....

Klees'chen also visited James' class at school yesterday.  Apparently he talked to each child individually, and James said he was pretty sure Klees'chen asked in Luxembourgish if he'd been good.  James must have seemed sincere in his affirmative answer, as he was given some snacks and a traditional chocolate Klees'chen:

So, in the end we decided to celebrate today by giving the kids a small gift (not inside any footwear) and saying "Happy Klees'chen Day!"  Daphne asked if it was really Klees'chen who brought the gifts.  We said no, we just give gifts on Klees'chen Day in Luxembourg because Klees'chen was a man who lived a long time ago who was known for his generous giving, but to please not mention this to the other kids at school.  We also decorated our Christmas tree.  I have to say, if I was to celebrate at St. Nicolas, Klees'chen, or Santa Claus, or even exchange gifts as we'd typically do, I'd actually much rather do it on the 6th!  As our family does celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas, I'm all for keeping this other bit separate.

Now, if I can just convince the extended family...

Here are a couple more worthwhile links:

Article from today's newspaper

U.S. St. Nick Day Celebrations - including a photo from Portland, Oregon!

A special connection between Luxembourg and an American St. Nicolas, 1944. - you might need a Kleenex handy.  You can also watch the films here.

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