Growing up in Belgium, Halloween was pretty much unknown to most, and Christmas was secondary to another children’s holiday: Saint Nicholas (December 6).
In the evening of Dec. 5, we’d put our slippers by the fireplace and sing songs to invite Saint Nicholas to leave us presents. Nice children would be rewarded with chocolates, speculoos cookies and toys. Naughty children would be visited by the less amenable Pere Fouettard (Zwarte Piet), who for us was basically a man in blackface (scary!), or in other regions, an old bearded man, or a devil (more on that later). Whichever the version, they all are handy with a whip.
The legend of Saint Nicholas varies from one region to another, but the version I learned as a kid was awesomely gruesome. Here’s the English translation of a popular song we learned in school…
Three little children sought the plain
Gleaners of the golden grain.
They lingered past the angel-song,
And dewy shadows swept along.
‘Mid the silence of the wood
The butcher’s lonely cottage stood,
“Butcher! lodge us for the night,
Lodge us till the morning light.”
“Enter in, ye children small,
I can find a place for all.”
The butcher seized a knife straitway,
And did the little creatures slay.
He put them in a tub of brine,
In pieces small as they were swine.
St. Nicholas, at seven years end,
His way did to the forest wend.
He sought the butcher’s cottage drear:
“Butcher! I would rest me here!”
“Enter! enter, St. Nicholas!
You are welcome, St. Nicholas!
Enter! enter, St. Nicholas!
There’s place for you the night to pass.”
Scarce had the Saint his entrance made,
He would the supper board was laid.
“Will you have of ham a slice?”
“I will not, for it is not nice!”
“Of this veal you’ll take a bit?”
“No! I do not relish it.”
“Give me of the little swine,
For seven long years have laid in brine!”
The butcher caught the words he said,
And forthwith from the portal fled.
“Butcher! butcher! do not flee,
Repent and God will pardon thee!”
St. Nicholas the tub drew near,
And lo! he placed three fingers there.
The first one said, “I sweetly rest!”
The second said, “I too am blest!”
The third replied, “Tis well with me,
In Paradise I seem to be!”
So yeah, good old Saint Nicholas brought back three slaughtered children from the dead.
A fun Saint Nick slasher film by Dutch director Dick Maas came out last year, by the way, and although it was based on a different version of the legend, it was pretty good: Sint. Seek it out!