Since one of my American Sister’s fathers is Dutch, a “Gelukkig Sinterklaas” email was in my inbox on December 6. So…how was I celebrating? She wanted to know if in fact Sinterklaas and Zwart Piet had arrived in the stoomboot and made it through the tight security in Belgium. I responded that, oh yes, nothing had stopped Sinterklaas and he was alive and well. The American/Dutch Sister commented she could still sing “Zie ginds komt de stoomboot” like a good little Dutch girl (she is in her 40’s). Upon sharing this with my Sisters here on Sinterklaas night, the Prioress, born and bred near Bruges, treated us to a rendition of the song, singing all the words from her childhood! Not only had Sinterklaas made it through security – he had also stopped at the convent. Arrays of goodies were set out on the tables in the recreation room our enjoyment – everything from small Snickers bars to figs, dates and apricots, mixed nuts, sweet and sour candies, and gummy ones too, and a version of animal crackers which those of my advanced age will remember from childhood. Of course there was some cheese and bread to nourish us, and we all loved it – the many fun choices and the pleasant conversation. This was dinner and we all enjoyed the congenial time in front of the fireplace, which I think has not been used since a Sinkterklaas day many, many years ago, but all was very homey and inviting. Sinterklaas did come to the Begijnhof.
Sinterklaas Day is a Belgian holiday with some historical Christian overtones – but on the other hand December 8, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, is a celebrated high Catholic liturgical feast. As I entered the church this morning around 6:30 am, the organ music wafted over me. Oh yes, this is a high feast day. Some Sister was up early and the gentle tones of “What Child is This” were resounding in the church. The high altar was decked in white roses which had appeared at First Vespers yesterday; today beautiful arrangements of red roses and evergreens were added to the altar. The very tall candles on the high altar were lit and the painting of Saint Elizabeth (abandoning her life of luxury to Jesus on the cross) was illuminated. The altar curtains were soft beige with Mary embroidered on the ciborium drape. The lace border had again appeared across the high altar. The priest’s vestment was also soft, sparkling beige; his robe had a wide border of deep blue velvet with Mary and the Christ child embroidered in gold thread, and delicate flowers embroidered down the front central panel. Burning incense anointed both us and the altar. The mass was sung rather than recited. In the 500-year-old Béguinage church, amidst this beauty and the presence of God, Mass was celebrated for the seven faithful and the eight sisters.
Special sweet bread awaits us for breakfast; a celebratory midday meal with special graces sung before and after the meal; then again at Second Vespers we close another High Feast Day.