Old Fashioned Christmas In Belgium (1880s)

This description of Belgian Christmas traditions appeared in the book Christmas Notes and Queries  (1886,).


Belgium, although retaining, in all probability, more mediaeval customs and observances than most European countries, pays little respect to Christmas as a social festival. Its festivities are for the most part, under French influences, deferred to New Year’s Day. It is, however, by all devout and zealous Roman Catholics regarded as a solemn feast of the Church, and, after Easter, as the most important in the calendar.

Formerly Christmas was preceded by a season of strict abstinence, which lasted the whole of Advent, during which there was an entire disuse of flesh;t his rule is now confined to monastic establishments. Advent being thus a penitential season, the priest during mass wears violet and does not chant the ” Gloria in excelsis.”

The services of Christmas Day are always of a joyful character, and everything that art and music can contribute is done to give eclat to the celebration. The midnight mass, formerly an essential feature of this festival, is now nearly confined to monasteries.

In all Catholic churches on Christmas Day each priest may celebrate mass three times, and for each of these masses there is, in the Missal, a special office provided. The significance of the three masses is fully explained in the learned work of Don Prosper Gueranger, ‘ L’Annee Liturgique ; Deuxieme Section ; Le Temps de Noel,” pp. 135261.

Carol singing, anciently so popular, is no longer general; but the practice is not quite extinct in Borne country villages.

The decking of Christmas trees, presenting toys to children, and sending out Christmas cards scarcely obtain in Belgium, except in some families of German or English origin.

The construction of creches and grottoes to represent the Nativity is continued principally in convents ; in parish churches it is rare.

It will be seen that Christmas, while still a great festival of the Church, has to some extent fallen from its high estate in Belgium as in France. In ancient Flanders, and in the Teutonic provinces generally, Christmas had anciently many more joyous accompaniments. Some of the customs were very curious.

In the Flemish villages, after the midnight mass, a young man, wearing on his naked shoulders wings to represent the Archangel Gabriel, recited the “Ave Maria” to a young girl, who replied, ” Fiat”; the angel then kissed her on the mouth. Afterwards a child, enclosed in a great pasteboard. cock, cried, imitating the crow of the cock, ” Puer natus est nobis”; a great ox, bellowing, said ” Oubi” (ubi /); a long procession, preceded by four sheep, cried ” Bethleem “; an ass cried ” Hihanus,” for eamut; and a great crowd, with bells and little images of the Virgin, brought up the rear.

The superstitions respecting Christmas in ancient Belgium were many. Young girls taking a candle to the wells at midnight might see the faces of their future husbands. A light extinguished on the table at the Christmas feast foreshadowed the death of one guest. A child born on Christmas Eve ought to be named Adam or Eve, according to sex. A child born on Christmas Day would be gifted with a rare intelligence ; for ” II voit les esprits divins.”

The Yule log was burnt in Flanders, and  the family crowded round it, extinguishing all other lights. A fragment of the Yule log recovered from the flames and kept under the bed would preserve the house from accidents by thunder and lightning. Charcoal of wood burnt as a Yule log mixed with water cured leanness and relieved consumption.

Many of the Old Flemish carols or Kenlieiem have been preserved by Willems in hia ‘Oudt Ylamsche Liederen’ (Ghent, 1848), and for other and additional Christmas observances, see Reinsberg-Dueringsfeld, ‘ Legendes et Traditions de ‘: Belgique ‘ (8vo., Bruxelles, 1870).

J. Maseell.


Old Fashioned Holidays – Christmas Indexes

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