The run up to Christmas in Bruges is magical! The Market square is transformed with little wooden chalets selling unusual gifts as well as warm hats, scarves and drinks like jenever coffee and hot chocolate. There is the aroma of toasted almonds and bradworst with fried onions. It isn't a huge market - just enough to surround the ice skating rink which becomes a fairyland after dark with twinkling lights.
When dusk descends early on a chilly December afternoon it is lovely to peek into shop windows with their Christmas goodies and see cosy log fires in restaurants and tea rooms. Christmassy music is piped into the streets to add to the atmosphere. There is also another little market half way along the shopping street at Simon Stevinplein. Here there are more hand made and craft gifts for sale.
It is a pleasure to shop for something a little different to what is on offer at home - maybe tree decorations, toys, accessories or chocolate! If you are staying overnight you may be lucky enough to catch a carol concert in one of the churches.
On the night of December 5th St Nicholas and his helper Zwarte Piet (black Peter) visits the children and leaves them toys. Costumed St Nicholas' can be seen in shopping areas on this day and throw sweets and small biscuits..
The actual days of Christmas follow a traditional pattern that is a little different to the UK in that Christmas Eve night is very quiet and most shops, restaurants and cafes close around 6p.m. It is an important religiously significant night of the year for families to get together, share an elaborate meal, exchange simple gifts and then go to midnight mass. The next day Christmas Day they will be out and about, walking the dog, ice skating and enjoying a burger and a drink.
As in the UK, the following days are spent eating, drinking and sharing time with family and friends. This period between Christmas and New Year is called Twixmas.
There is a flurry of shopping activity at this time to buy gifts for New Year. Presents for New Year are far more important and expensive than at Christmas. The actual New Year's Eve which is called Oud Yaar's avond (Old year's evening) is often spent in a restaurant or at a party and involves a long feast of eating and drinking. Places in restaurants must be booked in advance.
On the Zand square in Bruges there is a stage, bars and community singing with fireworks at midnight. It is nice to wander home through the streets with the strains of Abba's 'Happy New Year' ringing in your head!