I Am The Easter Bunny

I thought our Christmas ordeal was a challenging experience in cross-cultural communication, trying to explain to our little children the four incarnations of Santa Claus. Little did I know that I would have to become the Easter Bunny at 7 am on Easter Sunday.

Let’s recap. Our children are of Anglo-Swedish origin, and we live in Belgium. Three cultures to merge already, the latter of which we are still largely ignorant of in spite of a total of six years in this country. Our children, however, spending most of their awake hours in a Flemish school, are not.

I should have remembered last year, when we were hunting little Easter eggs all around our back yard. Another mnemonic came a few days ago in the shape of our dear little old lady neighbour downstairs, a Flemish woman with no children of her own and thus our kids’ surrogate Granny. She called me to her and snuck a large bag of little Easter eggs and candy of the same kind, with the obvious intent of helping us to repeat the act this year.

The thing is, in this part of the world, little children awake on Easter morning (I’ve never been able to figure out exactly which day it’s supposed to be) to find their gardens full of hidden chocolate eggs that have to be found. In France, these eggs are said to be spread all over the world from the Vatican’s church bells; in Belgium, for some reason I have yet to unveil, they are all laid by the Easter Bunny.

Problematically enough, however, he is not the only one who does so. Any visit to any commercial outlet of any kind this time of the year reveals that Easter Bunnies must have reproduced like, well, rabbits, because you are met with row after row, aisle after aisle, of one set of Easter eggs and candy more sugar-stuffed and unhealthy than another.

Consequently, we thought ourselves to be good parents to but the kids one large, candy-stuffed Easter egg each on Good Friday, to prevent any possible pining. But when they came home from school, they had already had a visit from the candy-dropping Bunny in their classrooms, and were thus already experiencing blood sugar levels set to saturated and rising. So we thought it good to ration the candy intake, and leave the garden chocolate hunt for Easter Day in the morning. Eager inquiries from the Four-year-old and the Six-year-old, anticipating the hunt, were met with our purportedly initiated explanations that “it’s too early yet, wait for Easter Sunday”.

Talk about making a rod for your own back.

The day before – nay, the night before – I had reason to attend to a lot of important business that kept me up late, late, late into the wee hours. Or early. Going to bed, I calculated when I would have to get up again in order to get us ready for going to Church, and decided that I could at least sleep until 8.30. Wow, almost five hours’ sleep.

How wrong I was. Ten to seven, our two little tots came bouncing into our bed – which only so happens to be the best point for getting a view of our garden – excitedly wanting to see how full of sweets the garden was. You should have seen the look on their faces when all they saw was frozen grass. Disappointment and grief doesn’t even begin to convey it.

Drowsily trying to return to the land of the living, two thoughts fought for attention from the four of my brain cells that had switched on so far

1)      Are these Belgian kiddies my children?

2)      How in the name of Pete do I get away with this?

Luckily enough, necessity is the mother of invention. I sent the kids back to bed with some half-baked explanation that it was so early that the Bunny hadn’t even made it there yet, trying to order them to sleep a little more. That is usually impossible. When the sun is shining at full floodlight strength and they are expecting one of the year’s major events, it’s as easy as drilling a mine shaft with a boiled carrot.

I then remembered that thankfully, there is a corner of our garden that you can’t see from anywhere in the house, as it is concealed behind a large shed.

So I put on a suitably troubled face (which was the one thing this morning that took the least effort), went to my grim-faced little dear ones laying in their beds and told them that I was going outside to take a closer look, just in case.

The thermometer said –0.4 C.

Well, then at least I could wear a winter jacket large enough to conceal the sack of candy from the Secret Hiding Place. Out I went, after first ripping open the little bags that these eggs come in, so as to be able to act quickly once out there.

I felt like someone out of a Biblical parable as I stood there in the garden, spreading little candy eggs like a sowerman. There must be a sermon illustration in all this. Hope the neighbours weren’t watching, but then again, they probably would have nodded in sympathy.

Next, stage two of the Deception: I took a deep breath, rushed inside, and dashed into my kids’ bedroom feigning excitement.

“I found them! I found them! They were in the corner! Come and have a look!”

Grumpily and drowsily, the kids reluctantly arose to come and see. The Six-year-old looked in some disbelief, wondering what those empty bags accidentally sticking out from Daddy’s pocket were all about. My and my wife’s acting skills were stretched to their limits as we boiled up yet another lie about them being some old trash that I was about to throw away.

I eventually managed to pour my children into suitably warm clothes, and get them outside, where they would only be able to see the candy from right behind the shed. You guessed it: the day was saved.

However, as I stood there repeating that the Easter Bunny must have been in a great hurry, why he left all the eggs in one corner of the garden – all in the name of making the illusion complete – I did wonder how I was going to reconcile the fact that I had begun this year’s largest Christian feast day by trying to systematically violate the Ninth Commandment (or Eighth, if you’re a Catholic or a Lutheran).

Better get to Church, I suppose. My alarm clock just went off 15 minutes ago.

 

 

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Utterly Useless

Oh, this is rich: what must probably be the one most useless excuse for a game ever conceived (and, sadly, also manufactured):

Gaming by calculator… how fun is THAT.

(ps. No, its not me guiding you there; the item comes from http://crave.cnet.co.uk/gadgets/0,39029552,49293700-2,00.htm – the rest there is worth checking out too.)

Swimming Pool Monster

One of the really great things about Belgian schools is that they teach the children to swim, with weekly swimming lessons from age six.

Our six-year-old is soon capable of swimming without support pads, I annouce proudly. But it has now occurred to him that it is possible to slip under the surface and drown, so, this morning, he was a bit afraid of today’s trip to the swimming pool.

We reassured him that there are guards trained to throw themselves into the water and help if anything bad happens and so on – and then his four-year-old brother decided he wanted to join in on the comforting as well, with the following helpful comment:

“Don’t be afraid, its just the sea monster”.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Growing up in an Anglo-Swedish family living in Belgium at least has one advantage that my children will eventually discover: You get Christmas presents over and over again. The only problem is that you don’t quite know from whom.

The Belgian tradition is for children to get their presents from Sinterklaas/St. Nicholas on December 6, and since the Sint, as he is commonly known, frequents the schools around that date, there is no way for us to try to ignore that tradition. (And it would be pretty harsh for the kids to come to school on that day and be asked by their friends “so what did you get from the Sint, then?”) So, already on December 5, our four- and six-year-olds put out a shoe each with carrots in them – for Sint’s horse – and awoke the morning after to find that the Sint had been there to put presents there in return.

Then, the Swedish Christmas starts officially on Christmas Eve, which is the day every Swedish child gets their presents – in fact, that is the main day of Christmas in Sweden. As we have that tradition firmly engraved in us, that is of course when we will have the next Christmas present flurry. More gifts.

The day after, Christmas Day, is traditionally the day when British children get presents in their stockings. Our kids have thus already put their stockings up, so it will be difficult to avoid even more presents then.

Well, if that sounds complicated, we haven’t got to the whole Santa business yet.

The Belgian Santa – the Sint – is not a merry figure from the North Pole; he is a skinny bishop arriving in a boat from Spain. The fact that he lives in sunny Spain rather than the freezing North isn’t so much the result of any modern-day timeshare condo programme, but rather a remnant from the years when Belgium was ruled by Spain and everything came from there. He is accomplished by Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), a jester-looking chap dressed in medieval clothing who is usually depicted as a blackface minstrel… a seriously politicaly incorrect caricature of an African man, probably in some way stemming from Moorish influences in Spain. He is the one who actually administrates the gift distribution; now there’s another interesting ground for debate over who’s the servant and who’s the master, by the way, but that’s beside the point.

However, the Swedish Santa – Jultomten – is a reformed and overgrown gnome, who lives alternatively at the North Pole or – more often – in Rovaniemi in Finland (although there have been some attempts to relocate him to Mora, Sweden). Not only does this bearded and obese character appear on Christmas Eve: he usually turns up in person, handing out Christmas presents from his sack, usually at the very moment when Dad has popped out to buy the newspaper. Jultomten has nothing in common with the Sint at all, except for being clad in red and handing out presents.

Then, the increasingly americanised version occuring in English-speaking countries, Santa Claus, of course lives at the North Pole, but sneaks down the chimney at night between Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 while the children are sleeping. to fill their stockings.

You’d think that our biggest problem is that we don’t have a chimney, but it gets worse still.

Putting all these things together means that we have to try to explain to our kids why this figure first appears in their school in full visibility, then sneaks in at home here at night, then changes clothes completely, gives Zwarte Piet a vacation in the middle of their busiest season, puts on 30-40 kilos in 18 days and relocates to the far North before turning up here again in full visibility, only to sneak in back here again the very night after to pop a few extra gifts down the kid’s socks that he could just as well have given to them the evening before.

The other day, we went to the local British store, where we buy all things English. There, the children had the chance of meeting Father Christmas, the fourth incarnation of this seasonal fiction, who is the English version of Santa (but ethnologically not entirely Santa Claus either).

“Is Zwarte Piet with him?” the Four-year-old asked expectantly.

Help.

A Saint That Isn’t One

Today, Sweden celebrates one of its most peculiar traditions, which we of course will highlight here in Brussels as well: Sankta Lucia.

On this morning, young people in Protestant – and secular – Sweden dress up to stage the arrival of the Catholic saint, in a depiction that has nothing to do at all with the saint in question and has other roots and meanings as well. Of which most peole have little idea.

Heading a candlelit procession is a girl in a white robe with candles in her hair, symbolising (but not symbolising) St. Lucia of Syracuse, Italy, which is certainly not the reason why she is usually portrayed by a girl with long blond hair and other Scandinavian (but definitely not Italian) features. However, she historically doesn’t portray the saint, but an angel, of which there is no more mention and people usually haven’t heard of these days at all, but whch is from where she gets the candles, because while they are said to remind the secular Swedes of how St. Lucia lit up the catacombs to raise the spirits of the Christians hiding there in pre-Christian Europe days, they are actually intended to depict a halo as there is no record that St. Lucia ever illuminated the hideaway Christians’ lives in such a manner.

Along in the procession comes a group of similarly white-robed girls, with candles in their hands (but not in their hair, which is important), and boys without candles but wearing Merlin-the-wizard-style paper cones on their heads depicting them as “starboys”, the symbolism of which is unclear except that they are not wizards, and sometimes boys dressed as Santa Clauses, although they are less Santa Clauses and more of the red-dressed gnomes that are the origins of the Swedish Santa variant Jultomten, who by the way lives in Finland or at the North Pole but not in Sweden. And then of course the Gingerbread Man.

The procession sings a Swedish translation – with words that were actually incomprehensible to the standard use of Swedish already when they were written – which is a translation of the Italian folk song “Santa Lucia”, a widespread standard tune in Italy which is not about the St. Lucia at all, but about the quarters in Naples called Santa Lucia, in the original language sung by a fisherman who longs for his home there after a long hard day out on the Mediterranian Sea. Other songs are sung, too, all with the general message that Christmas is eleven days away, for those who are unable to work that out from their calendars, although Christmas itself is actually twelve days away by the Lucia day, but Christmas starts in Christmas Eve in Sweden –  which is not officially a holiday in the country, in spite of it being more observed than most holidays which are official.

Oh, yes, and sometimes they sing about St. Stephen, who in Sweden is percieved to be a stable hand who was stoned for alerting king Herod – whose horses he was tending – that the Star of Bethlehem had risen and Christ had been born, in spite of the fact that the Bible mentkons him as being stoned by a mob some time after Christ’s crucifiction, that is, three decades later (with no mention of horses); consequently, the song is exclusively about Stephen giving the horses water and riding one of them himself, and of stars twinkling in the sky, with no apparent internal connection at all.

The Lucia procession also serves coffee and saffron-filled buns with raisins, lussekatter, all of which is considered essentially Swedish even though neither coffee, saffron nor raisins are possible to produce in the country.

All of this is enough to make any Swede teary-eyed and sentimental, and considered a funamental element of the Christmas season. We shall take our kids to one evening version of the event arranged by the Swedish Lutheran church, but not by any of the Catholich churches in this officially Church of Rome country, later this evening – the ‘evening’ part being essential as the processional requires an outside darkness of the kind prevalent in Sweden this time of the year – which is held this year in the Dominican church, even though we usually attend an evangelical church in another part of town.

Did you get all that?

No? Well, while you try to work out all of the above, I think I’ll go and have another lussekatt. I baked my own last night. They turned out delicious. Especially when dunked in hot cocoa, which is not in the Lucia tradition at all but a tradition in my family.

Just to complicate things a little, that is.

I Found It! At Last!!

Oh, please, please, please, click on this link:
http://www.shibumi.org/eoti.htm

It’s not dangerous, obscene, violent, or anything else. Just funny.

How To Shop Without Money – Legally

Oh, this is rich, literally speaking. Gazet van Antwerpen today publishes the story about Norbert Verswijver, who managed to shop for EUR 48,511 – but only had to pay 60 cents. Legally.

The explanation is that he used a number of discount coupons serially. He brought a bag full of coupons to the Blokker supermarket, all promising 20 percent off this item or 15 percent off that. All fine and dandy, but nobody had thought about that they could be used in sequence.

Norbert Verswijver simply bought any item that had an offer of a percentage discount associated with it – and then pulled out another percentage discount coupon to get a discount on the discounted price he was supposed to pay. And so on, and so on, until the price was down at zero, or anywhere close to it.

Mr Verswijver claims to have read all the fine print and intends to take Blokker to court, if they decide to back off from their offers, as they are currently trying to decide what to do with the customer.

He has already pulled a similar stunt at another supermarket, Match, which offered a EUR 4 discount on deep frozen products to anyone buying four products. Match hadn’t thought about that this would also cover items costing less than a euro a piece, so Mr Verswijver gathered up all the pots of chervil he could find, four of which costing only about three euros, and managed to amass refunded cash to such an extent that he was able to walk away with EUR 6,000 worth of deep-frozen products paid with nothing but paper coupons and one five eurocent coin.

The whole story is found here (in Dutch).