In Nederlands class, one learns not only the Dutch/Flemish language but also about the culture, how the medical system works, how you reserve tickets for a show, and how to use the telephone! I am always humbled by what I do not know about the world in general, specifically the countries from which my classmates come, and about Belgium in particular. Sometimes many of us in class cannot even form the right questions to ask, never mind getting to an enlightening answer.
Sinterklaas Day falls in that category. Sinterklaas Day was yesterday, December 6. Now this man bears some resemblance to Santa Claus but he is always dressed as a bishop in ancient red ecclesiastical robe, bearing witness to the strong Catholic heritage in Belgium. Sinterklaas carries a bishop’s miter and golden crosier (or bishop’s staff); he arrives most usually by steamboat from Spain, and then transfers to a white horse to gallop over rooftops and descend chimneys to deliver candy, goodies, and small gifts to fill the waiting shoes placed expectantly with the Sinterklaas letter in front of the fireplace. Grandparents flock to the local stores to buy chocolates in the shape of Sinterklaas, his horse, his boat, or his assistant Zwaarte Piet, the black assistant from Spain. Children of course had to have been good and if not they were destined to return to Spain with Zwaarte Piet. I truly enjoyed my stroll in the children’s section of the library, peering at the Sinterklass display of illustrated books and the colorful felt figures of Sinterklaas in his steamboat with his two Zwaarte Piet assistants.
As I bought the bread in the bakery, which was replete with delectable individual pastries and chocolates to tempt any parent or grandparent, I was told in Nederlands (which I was proudly able to comprehend), Het is een heel belangrijk dag! Yes this is a very important day for Belgium and its children! There is more here though to comprehend: Belgium’s children are valued, respectful and loved in this simple tradition — a new understanding of Belgium for the American nun.