Holidays and Festivals in Belgium

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The multi-cultural ethos in Belgium has given way to numerous festivals, some of which are celebrated as public holidays while others are observed with great local fervor. Besides a long established Catholic tradition also means that there are many religious and cultural festivals that are widely celebrated in Belgium. Here are some of the most popular holidays and festivals of Belgium beginning with New Year and ending with Christmas.

New Year

January 1 marks the beginning of a brand new year and like the rest of the world is greeted by Belgians according to colorful local traditions. The evening before, the Flemings like to have a large dinner with their friends which mostly lasts into the early hours of New Year’s Day. At midnight toasts are drunk, fireworks set off and the ships in the harbor at Antwerp blow their horns to mark the arrival of a new year. New Year’s Day is mostly celebrated with family members and it is a Belgian tradition for children to visit their grandparents to read out their New Year resolutions for which they are usually rewarded with a gift.

Epiphany

Being a largely Catholic country, the religious feast of Epiphany is widely observed which us believed to commemorate the visit of the magi to the infant Christ. In the Flemish areas of Belgium, children dress up as the three kings on this day and go around houses singing traditional songs and being rewarded with sweets or fruits.

Carnaval

Celebrated throughout Belgium for three days between February and March, this colorful event marks the last big bout of partying before the restrictions of Lent get under way. Highlighted by music parades and fireworks, the climax of this event is when the Gilles appear on Brussels’ Grand Place and throw oranges to the spectators. In addition to Brussels, the towns of Binche, Malmedy and Stavelot also host spectacular parades and parties. A feature of the Belgian carnival is that they are colored by local customs rather than following a standard pattern. Ostend for instances has its Procession of a Thousand Lamps while in Binche, the parade of the Gilles is a major draw.

Easter

The austerities of Lent end with Easter which is the next major religious festival in Belgium. On both Good Friday and Easter, church services are held in churches across the country while later in the day children hunt for Easter eggs in the garden.

Labor Day

Also observed as May Day, the first day of the month of May is usually marked by civic functions and processions. Trees are planted in some towns as a symbol of renewal ushered in by summer after a long winter. In May too, the second Sunday is celebrated as the old Festival of Cats in the city of Ypres; while in earlier times, live cats were thrown from the belfry of the Cloth Hall as symbols of evil spirits, nowadays toy cats are used to keep up the essence of the tradition.

In May too, takes place the world famous pageant of the Procession of Holy Blood in the city of Brugge. Since the year 1150, the historic city of Brugge has been attracting thousands of visitors for this event. The relic of the Holy Blood was brought to Brugge by the Count of Flanders in 1149. Since then, the relic has been venerated by a mile-long procession of 1,500 Brugge citizens; many in colorful medieval attire carry the relic through town in a beautiful procession that re-enacts scenes from the Bible through the coming of Christ and His Resurrection to the return of the Count of Flanders to Brugge.



Waterloo Day

On June 18 in 1815 the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon on the field of Waterloo just outside Brussels; the event is remembered on the Waterloo day and every five years, a re-enactment of this famous battle is carried out.

National Day

The spate of historic events in June and July continues with the celebration of the National Day of Luxembourg on June 23 as well as the Belgium National Day observed on 21 July. In case of the latter, celebrations include a military procession in the Parc de Bruxelles in Brussels as well as various parades and fireworks throughout the country.

Ghent Festival

July though is not just a month for nationalist sentiments but marks a whole lot of merrymaking too, what with the Ghent festival celebrated in the Belgian city famous for its rich trading past.  Every year in July the inhabitants of Ghent put together a ten day extravaganza of medieval  festivities. People sing, dance, eat, drink, get together and watch theatre. Free feasts take place on several squares where the lovely inner-city turns into a hub of cultural celebrations and party atmosphere.

Meyboom

This is one of the most anticipated events on Brussels’ cultural calendar Meyboom is the oldest folklore celebration in Brussels and  takes place on August 9th with a brass band procession and giant puppets. The cross bowmen of Saint-Laurent erect a May tree at the intersection of two streets, the Rue du Marais and Rue des Sables, as a reward for a feat of arms in the 14th century.

Open Monuments

The great thing about the festival scene in Belgium is that it includes not only religious and cultural events but also showcases the rich architectural heritage of the country. Thus on selected weekends in September, Belgium opens a handful of protected monuments to the public in what are known as Heritage Days. These events usually fall on the second weekend in September for monuments in the countryside and on the following weekend for those in the national capital of Brussels.

All Saints Day

This is another popular religious occasion which people observe to honor the departed by bringing candles and chrysanthemums to their graves. On the day after, that is the Day of the Dead, it is customary to eat “soul-cakes”.

St. Nicholas Day

With the arrival December, the anticipation of Christmas start building up and an important event which marks these festivities is Saint Nicholas’ Day. On this day, kids receive presents, which usually include a spiced cookie depicting St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, and popularized as Santa Claus in most parts of the world.

Christmas

The final holiday to mark the year is Christmas and days before special markets come up in various town squares along with depictions of Nativity in churches. On Christmas Eve, families get together, exchange presents and have a special dinner after which many go to attend the midnight mass. The spirit of merrymaking is kept up with the Christmas Beer Festival hosted by The Objective Beer tasters Essen Region or OBER at which for two days visitors can taste more than 100 Belgian Christmas and winter beers.