Kleeschen spotted in Mamer, carrying his bishop’s crosier and wearing the traditional bishop’s mire, on 2 December 2017. Picture credit: Gwenael Piaser (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
On 6 December, children in Luxembourg stay at home to take joy in the many sweets and toys they received from the good old man in the red gown known as “Kleeschen”.
As a child, I slept pretty soundly--except during the night of 5 to 6 December.
My yearly, short-lived insomnia came from the unbearable excitement of knowing that in the morning our living room would have undergone a fantastic transformation. The plates my siblings and I had put on the table the night before would be filled with chocolate, sweets, mandarins and nuts. Next to the plates would be the toys from our wish list, wrapped in sparkly paper. And the best part was that we could play all day long, because on St. Nicolas Day primary schools are shut in Luxembourg.
“Ei ei ei, lo ass den Kleeschen hei” is only one out of the many Luxembourgish songs that have been written to honour Saint Nicolas. Kleeschen, sometimes also called “Zinniklos”, is an old man, with glasses that peak through his long, white beard and hair. He is often tall, sometimes a bit chubby, but is always seen wearing a red gown. In contrast to the American Santa Claus, Kleeschen usually wears a bishop’s mire and carries a crosier. These two features trace back to the religious roots of the tradition because Saint Nicolas, also called Nicholas of Myra, was a Christian saint who helped children and poor people in need.
Kleeschen however doesn’t pay his yearly visits alone; he is always accompanied by his dark companion called “Houseker”. With his all black gown and beard, “Houseker” is scared and respected among children. Apart from his charcoal smeared face, children fear him because he calls on the naughty ones, the ones who tormented their parents over the year. As a reminder to stay obedient, “Houseker” often gives misbehaved, idle children birch rods.
A chocolate St. Nicolas, which is popular in Luxembourg and also in other European countries celebrating the day. Picture credit: Pexels
The legacy of St. Nicolas is celebrated in many other European countries, including France, Germany and Belgium. In the Netherlands, the patron of children is called “Sinterklaas,” and “Zwarte Piet” is the Dutch equivalent of “Houseker”. In recent years, however, discussions have risen around the figure of “Zwarte Piet” that point out the underlying racist connotations and recall the country’s colonial past.
And yet, like the many miracles performed by Saint Nicolas himself, 6 December is dedicated to children and their innocent faith in Kleeschen’s descent from heaven. It is a day that creates many sweet memories for children that will remain for years.
For me it is easy to remember our eager excitement at primary school when we performed traditional carols to Kleeschen and his companion when they visited school. Or the unrestrained curiosity with which my siblings and I emptied our shoes, which we were allowed to put in front of the main door on the first day of Advent. Or even that time, when dear “Ziniklos” managed to set up my entire Playmobil castle in the same night as he visited all the other well-behaved children--even though it was quite strange that my father became the world’s next nap champion that same St. Nicolas Day!