St. Nicholas Eve
Netherlands and Belgium
St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, and his helper, Zwarte Piet, sail from Spain on the big gift-giving day of the season. Traditionally, children placed their shoes by the fireplace with a carrot tucked inside for Sinterklaas’ horse.
Sinterklaas leaves candy in the shoes of good children, while Zwarte Piet leaves a bundle of sticks or bag of salt for naughty ones. (This is where America’s version of Santa Claus came from.)
Children and adults exchange gifts, sometimes wrapped cleverly or hidden for the receiver to find.
St. Lucia’s Day
Also known as St. Lucy’s Day, it symbolizes St. Lucy, who was martyred by the Romans for her Christian beliefs.
Lucia means “light,” so, traditionally, the youngest daughter wears a candle-lit wreath and brings coffee and buns to wake family members while singing. The girls also wear white dresses and red sashes.
Now the day is commemorated with public parades led by a St. Lucia and several maids. Locally and nationally selected Lucias are similar to pageant queens, making public appearances and handing out gingersnap cookies.
“Posadas” means “lodging,” and this celebration represents Mary and Joseph searching for shelter in Bethlehem.
Children and adults sing songs at houses, asking for shelter. They are then turned away in song until they reach the designated house party for the evening.
At the final posada, the guests pray before celebrating with food, drinks and a piñata for the kids.
New Year’s Day
The start of the new year signifies a clean slate, and it is considered to be the most important holiday. Homes are decorated with ornaments and are cleaned in preparation. People try to leave last year’s worries behind.
Families get together and eat toshikoshi (“year-crossing”) noodles. They are long noodles that symbolize longevity. At the stroke of midnight, Buddhist temples ring giant bells 108 times — one for each of the earthly passions Buddhists must overcome to achieve enlightenment.