Belgium has several public holidays where people get off of work and school, but there are many more celebrations and holidays where you do have to show up to work and school still. Belgium’s government on first glance is seemingly complicated because of its linguistic diversity. There is a national government, but then there are also governing bodies for the Flemish Community, Dutch Community, and German Community, and there’s a governing body for the Flanders region and the Wallonia region, etc., each one handling certain aspects of social and governmental statutes. Highly complicated, but it seems to work. I think.
New Year’s Day. January 1. Public Holiday. New Year’s celebrations start days in advance. Everyone attends parties, either at someone’s home or at bars, clubs, hotels, etc. Belgians like to bring in the New Year with lots of good food and drink, singing, dancing, and good company. On the stroke of midnight, people kiss and hug each other, and open the champagne bottle. One tradition is that the children will decorate colorful paper with holiday wishes for their parents and family members that they will read on New Year’s Day morning. Farmers will give blessings to their animals.
Epiphany. January 6. This is the oldest of Christian celebrations, and traditionally, the church is decorated in white (although green is used for certain Sundays after the first Sunday of Epiphany in certain churches). It celebrates the revelation that God’s son comes down as the human form of Jesus Christ. Western Christians also celebrate the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus at this time, while the Eastern Christians celebrate Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River around this time as well. It’s also known as Three King’s Day, where some kids may dress in costume and go door to door singing songs in exchange for candy or coins.
Valentine’s Day. February 14. Valentine’s Day in Belgium is celebrated much the same way as in the US: lots of candy and cards and gifts are given to the loves and crushes of your life. One difference is that there may not be as much giving gifts to friends as in the US.
Easter. Varies. Public Holiday. The 40-day Lenten period before Easter starts with a carnival that is held in many cities throughout Belgium. During Lent, many people avoid eating meat and give up other things as well, per the Catholic tradition. Since the majority of the population is Christian, most people will attend church services on Easter Sunday. Even those who don’t regularly attend church, they will try to attend on Easter. Afterwards, a nice Easter dinner is enjoyed with friends and family. Decorating Easter eggs and having egg hunts are common events on this day as well.
Easter Monday. Varies. Public Holiday. The day after Easter, many people use this day as a day of rest after the festivities of Easter. In Belgium, many people get this day off of work.
Labour Day. May 1. Public Holiday. It’s celebrated the same day that many other countries celebrate International Worker’s Day. May Day is also celebrated on the same day, a day that is tied in with ancient rites of spring. It’s a day that is centered around the eight-hour day movement: eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, eight hours for rest. (I wish it really worked out that way. I actually get 9 hours at the office; 1 ½ hours in traffic; 6 ½ hours helping with homework, family stuff, running errands, cooking dinner, and writing; 7 hours rest)
Iris Day. May 8. (I found it listed for May 5-6 for 2012.) This is only celebrated in the Brussels Capital Region. There are free concerts and street festivals throughout the area. The iris is the symbol for the Brussels Region because it grew there naturally although the area was originally covered in swamps. The government had a contest for the public to design the emblem.
Ascension. Varies. Public Holiday. This marks the 39th day after Easter and is used to commemorate Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
Pentecost. Varies. Public Holiday. Also known as Whit Sunday, it’s the Christian holiday that celebrates the decent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples, according to the New Testament of the Bible. The day falls 50 days after Easter. There are special services held for Pentecost Sunday.
Pentecost Monday. Public Holiday. The day after Pentecost, most businesses, government offices and schools are off on this day. Also sometimes called Whit Monday. Some churches may also have an additional service held on Whit Monday as well.
Day of Flemish Community. July 11. Held in remembrance for the Battle of the Golden Spurs (or Guldensporenslag). It’s only celebrated by the Flemish Community of Belgium. What the battle was about – in a nutshell – is that the Flemish citizens in Brugge violated orders set by the king and rebelled against him, so he sent an army in to “convince them” he wasn’t to be messed with. Well, the two went head to head in an open field, and it was an overwhelming victory for the Flemish townspeople, where afterwards, they collected the golden spurs of the French cavaliers.
National Holiday. July 21. Public Holiday. This is the day to commemorate the first ruler of Belgium, Leopold I. Eating popular national dishes such as mussels and fries (or steak and fries) is a very common thing. From what I’ve gathered, it’s not such a large-scale celebration as other countries have for their national days.
Assumption of Mary. August 15. Public Holiday. This is the day centered around the Christian myth when the Virgin Mary ascends into heaven. There may be special services at certain churches on this day. You may find some Virgin Mary symbolism around as well, like the color blue and the lily.
Day of the Walloon Region. 3rd Sunday in September. Celebrated only in the southern region of Wallonia, it’s a celebration for the French-speaking region of Belgium. Most of the festivities take place in its regional capital, Nemur.
Day of the French Community of Belgium. September 27. This day is for the French-speaking Belgians, celebrated with concerts, parades, and street festivals in the region. The date chosen was from the date that a riot occurred after patrons from a patriotic opera walked out the doors and started storming government buildings. (See, what the power of opera has? And you thought classical music was boring.) Dutch troops were dispatched, but after days of bloody fighting in the streets, the troops withdrew.
All Saints Day. November 1. Public Holiday. This is a Christian holiday for all the saints, especially used a catch-all for all of the saints that don’t have their own feast day.
All Souls Day. November 2. This holiday is in remembrance for those family members and friends who have passed on. People will often visit the graves of loved ones to light candles and give homage. The holiday is related to Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos or Italy’s Il Giorno dei Morti.
Armistice Day. November 11. Public Holiday. Held the same day as in the US. There are usually ceremonies held on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. However, unlike the US, businesses and schools are closed on this day.
Day of German-speaking Community in Belgium. November 15. Like the other two communities, this holiday is just for the German-speaking areas in Belgium. On this day, you’ll find the flag of the German community flown, which consists of a red lion and nine blue cinquefoils and a royal crown. People will often wear the regional colors of red and white.
King’s Feast. November 15. It’s a day used in honor of the monarch and the royal family. There is a te deum held at the cathedral, but the King doesn’t show up for this. It wouldn’t be considered good etiquette to honor himself.
Saint Nicholas. December 6. Also known as Sinterklaas, it’s a holiday in honor of Saint Nicholas. The character of Saint Nicholas is similar to the Santa Claus that we know in the US, with a few minor differences. Sinterklaas is said the ride on rooftops with a white horse and carries a staff. He also has mischievous helpers who have black faces and dressed as Moors (called Zwarte Piet). [Please go to your nearest bookstore and pull the book "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" by David Sedaris off the shelf and flip straight to the chapter called "Six to Eight Black Men." It's about this, except he was speaking to someone from the Netherlands. Then just go buy the book, because it's hilarious. And I have excellent taste.] It’s mostly a holiday for kids, where they have to wait until the next morning to receive their gifts. (Adults and parents have to wait until Christmas to receive their presents.) The bad kids get sticks in their shoes.
Christmas. December 25. Public Holiday. The Dutch-speaking areas celebrate with Saint Nicholas, while the French-speaking areas celebrate with Pere Noel, who also checks on the children, leaving chocolates and sweets for the good kids and sticks for the bad kids. (Sticks seem worse than coal as in US traditions, at least coal burns longer.) Belgians also celebrate with decorated Christmas trees that the presents go under, and everyone celebrates with a Christmas dinner. Making sweet breads are also a popular tradition around this time of year. Spending time with family is the focal point of the holiday.
Up next: Art and Literature