En route to the Brussels Christmas Market, we happened upon the staging area of what turned out to be a very entertaining parade. The stiltwalkers hanging out on second-story window ledges caught my attention, even before the giant cartoon heads and the oompah band (which, in this part of Europe, is called a bunch of neighbors of all ages getting together and jamming).
My favorite participants were the stiltwalkers. It was amusing watching the really tall ones pass by a high window and surprise the people inside!
My second-favorite group was the colorful giants, or géants, a medieval custom in northern France and Belgium. If you see a giant, you know there’s a holiday; they are brought out for celebrations, festivals and parades to dance in the streets, usually accompanied by local bands. Giants are native to regions and signify episodes in religious history and local legends. The géants typically have painted papier maché/plaster of paris heads and their bodies are covered in cloth. The frame is light enough so that one person can operate it. The arms have no structural element, so they swing freely during dancing.
So was going on? Why, the annual Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, Parade of course! Saint Nicholas Day is December 6th and most towns have festivities on and around the day. Note that this parade is different from the one held on December 5th where Saint Nicholas himself appears and is followed by his helper, Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, and the one on December 6th, in which schoolchildren march.
In Brussels, the parade is organized by the ‘Ordre des Amis de Manneken-Pis’ (friends of the Mannekien-Pis statue) and the Department of Culture. These two groups seem diametrically opposed, but that’s another issue.
In this part of Europe, Saint Nicholas is the saint of schoolchildren. Depending on where you are in the world, you might know Saint Nicholas as the saint of sailors, merchants, thieves and/or pawnbrokers.
According to the legend, Saint Nicholas saved three children who had been captured, chopped up and about to be turned into sausages. Saint Nicholas rescued the boys (or, rather, the boys’ many pieces) from the barrels into which they’d been put to cure. Through his prayers, Saint Nicholas resurrected the three boys. And everyone lived happily ever after.