The multilingual, multicultural home base of the European Union draws a fitting mix of Christmas traditions from across its borders with France, Germany and the Netherlands (including the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas). And while Christmas markets are common to all these countries, Belgium’s seem closest to the fairytale ideal that people tend to hold in their heads: storybook illustrations made real.
The biggest of these occupies Grand Place, the main square of Brussels, with a spectacular musical lightshow centred around a huge Christmas tree cut from the Ardennes Forest, or gifted from another pine-covered country, like Finland. But the markets of Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp and Leuven follow the same classic model, with twinkle-lit wood huts serving hot chocolate and wintry street food around an ice-skating rink. In Hasself, Santa Claus is given his own house at the market to field requests from children through the whole of December.
A visit to any of the above Christmas markets means loading up on sweet and savoury delicacies to your heart’s content. Many stalls will specialise in infinite varieties of Belgian chocolate, of course, while others serve both types of the national waffle – Brussels-style (light, rectangular and dusted with icing sugar) and Liege-style (small, thick and rounded with clumps of sugar).
Mini sausage factories churn out endless supplies of German-style currywurst, krakauer and sauerkraut. When it comes to the main Christmas meal at home, turkey or goose tends to dominate the table, supplemented with North Sea produce like cod, sole, herring, and especially mussels. The local medieval tradition of adding mustards and spiced sauces is still maintained by most. And the ‘yule’ or Christmas log is pretty ubiquitous for dessert, as if cut from a tree made of sponge and buttercream.