This is from a letter I wrote in 2007. We stopped in Belgium and the Netherlands on the way home from Kosovo to visit our friends Dave and Carol Lam, who took us to Christmas Markets.
In Europe the Manger and Santa Claus co-exist peacefully in the public square. In fact, two different versions of Santa Claus coexist. In the Low Countries St. Nicholas, in red with a bishop’s miter, comes on a white horse, accompanied by “Black Piet” his Moorish sidekick to deliver goodies on St. Nicholas day. But there is also the American Santa Claus in the red fur lined floppy hat, who comes on Christmas Eve. It seems to me that the kids in the Low Countries have it made.
But there is a cost. While St. Nicholas is all good and kind, Black Piet is the disciplinarian. He is the one who keeps track of who is naughty or nice and leaves the lump of coal for the former. But while there is only one St. Nick, (well, two if you count the Christmas Santa) there can be a lot of Black Piets.
In Bree there’s a one day St. Nicholas Eve market with three hundred booths and three Black Piets. They handed out candy and talked to the kids in advance of St. Nick’s visit that evening. Black Piets are really locals in blackface, and one of the Piets in Bree had startling blue eyes (and blonde roots.) In Bree my favorite image was a bar in a street booth. The bar had bottles and glasses lined up with a red bishop’s miter sitting on the end.
There have been protests against the Piets in blackface and proposals to paint Piet green. Green Piet sounds like an environmental organization. Now in Amsterdam they have many colored Piets, Green Piets, and Red Piets. Blue Piet looks like a Smurf.
Each market we attended was different; each had its own character. Bree featured practical gifts, clothes and house wares more than Christmas decorations. The prices in Bree were almost exactly the same as prices in Kosovo, which means, that for Belgians, this was the market for bargain hunters.