Even though I'm American and we don't do St Nicolas, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the holiday entailed: on December 6 eve, kids put out their shoes and St Nicolas comes on his donkey to give them candy or a toy-- not too complicated, no big deal.
Wrong, on every count. St Nicolas is huge here; much like the States has Christmas decorations going up the day after Thanksgiving, Liège has St Nicolas things going up the day after the fair ends (Nov 15). Lights start appearing on buildings and across the streets, a 'letters to St Nicolas' station gets set up in the Galleries St Lambert, and people dressed as St Nicolas start walking around the city. My host brother started putting his shoes out a few weeks ago and gets surprises every so often: legos, chocolates, St Nicolas-shaped Speculoos cookies...
On Sunday, my family, including Constantin's grandmother, and another family went to celebrate St Nicolas with some friends and their grandparents. Everyone brought toys for the kids "from St Nicolas" (apparently, in addition to writing to St Nicolas, you tell your friends to ask for toys you want in their letters, he brings them to their houses, and you all give each other the gifts when you clebrate together), which resulted in a Christmas-equivalent amount of presents, except that St Nicolas gets all the credit. Everyone also got a pile of clementines, chocolate coins, and a chocolate St Nicolas with their toys.
The actual party was pretty low key and wasn't much different than the normal weekend dinners my family has, except with marginally more wine and a lot more dessert. And whereas I normally spend the time after dinner playing hide and seek or some other such game, on Sunday it was spent putting together Playmobil. I don't think I've ever seen so many Playmobil in my life; I put together two pirate ships and a zoo and barely made a dent in the six children's-worth of toys.
Another aspect of St Nicolas, which I didn't anticipate at all, is the celebration for university students. Yesterday was the fête de St Nicolas for the University de Liège (different schools have different dates, and some high schools (not mine) have fêtes as well), which meant that instead of going to class, the students dressed up in lab coats to go around asking for money. Much like the shoe tradition, this started well before St Nicolas day, and all the students have slowly gotten their robes filled up with drawings and notes from their friends. On the day of the fête, the students are out in full force with eggs and flour to throw at anyone who doesn't give them money. At the end of the day, they go out with their money for "free" beer, fries, and parties.
I saw piles of flour and eggshells all over the city, but the main targets are high school students. My school was oddly compliant; though they sent a letter home warning people to bring change and not wait outside too long in order to avoid enfarinement (getting covered in flour), it was clear that this was not out of concern for students but because they didn't want flour in the school. I arrived yesterday morning with plenty (I thought) of 1, 2, and 5 euro cent coins, but there were so many students waiting at the door that it would have been nearly impossible to give money to them all. I ran out of money before even reaching the main crowd, but my honest face (or confused/overwhelmed look and accent) must have made them feel bad for me, because I got only flour and not eggs. I was able to brush most of it off in the locker room the school had specifically designated for that purpose, and even made it to class on time.
Most people were not that fortunate. A lot of people came late trying to avoid the most crowded times, but didn't have much luck. There were a lot of people in the halls with eggshells in their hair and their entire bodies coated in flour. Some were so messy that they weren't allowed into class; there were definitely a few boys in my class who exploited this to go home and take showers, faking an effort to clean themselves off in order to show exactly how disgusting they were.
Not only were the university students outside every exit at every time people would be entering or exiting (before and after school, lunch, recreation...), but Liège 1 let them in during 2nd period. I only had about 5 minutes of math due to the constant stream of students coming in to beg for money and write things on the chalkboard (we had mini lessons on 2+2=4, exponential functions, and Pythagore, and one student kept telling us that Mardi, MARDI, there is a quiz about LIFE). They weren't supposed to be allowed to bring their flour inside, but a few managed to sneak it in and I got a second faceful.
I'm a little disappointed I only got to be on the recieving end of this unexpected tradition, but maybe I can start something new in the US.
Joyeux fête de St Nicolas et à tantôt!