"Léiwe Kleeschen, gudde Kleeschen Bréng eis Saachen, allerhand, Fir ze kucken, fir ze schmaachen, Aus dem schéinen Himmelsland."
If you've lived in Luxembourg for a while, you'll know the song. If you're new, you might be a bit confused. Is this an early Christmas celebration?
Let's get the obvious question out of the way: Is Kleeschen Santa Claus?
Not exactly! Kleeschen refers to the figure Saint Nicholas of Myra. 6 December is St Nicholas' Day and is celebrated in several countries - including all Benelux countries, parts of France, and parts of Germany. In the Netherlands, the figure is referred to as Sinterklaas (the Luxembourgish equivalent for this is Zinniklos, but most people call him Kleeschen).
Sinterklaas is actually a primary source of inspiration for the North American Santa Claus figure that we know around the globe today, but Luxembourgers predominantly focus on their own Kleeschen.
So how do Luxembourgers celebrate Kleeschen?
Tradition dictates that Kleeschen would go through villages and ask if the kids had behaved themselves during the year. If yes, he would put presents in their shoes/plates/whatever they put out by the door, but if not…his companion Houseker would give them a stick!
Similarly to advent calendars, there is a build up to Kleeschen. In the week/two weeks before Kleeschen (at your discretion as a parent), kids lay their shoes out in a row. If they behaved themselves, they’ll wake up the next morning to find chocolate or some other treat in their shoes. If they didn’t behave themselves, they may find a stick courtesy of Kleeschen’s companion, Houseker. The amount of sticks depends on the severity of the child’s misbehaviour. On the one hand, it’s a fun and exciting build-up to the festive season, but on the other hand a great way for parents to urge their kids to behave.
[Fun anecdote: My parents moved to Luxembourg when my sister was very young. Unaware of Kleeschen and its traditions, my parents did not set out any chocolates or the like in my sister's shoes. One day, she came home from school and tearfully asked whether Kleeschen disliked her, as she hadn't received anything in her shoes. My parents were understandably confused and asked the neighbours what she was referring to. And then of course made up an excuse, saying that Kleeschen got lost!]
Kleeschen comes either the evening of the 5th or day of the 6th. As a child in public primary school, Kleeschen is an extra exciting day: You get the day off school! Sadly, the same doesn’t apply for secondary schools, although those in their final year tend to celebrate the day regardless. Some secondary schools have had to implement strict measures for Kleeschen due to final years getting a bit … raucous. Let’s just say, there have been many occasions where Samu (emergency services) have had to make a trip to various Luxembourgish secondary schools.
Okay, I guess it's time to stock up on sticks. Are there any official celebrations as well?
Indeed. Many municipalities organise their own Kleeschen processions near the date of 6 December. Usually, Kleeschen goes to the local school and kids queue up for a treat. Luxembourgish supermarkets (i.e. Cactus, Cora, Delhaize,...) also organise their own Kleeschen events ahead of the holiday, in which kids can queue up to get a “Tiitchen”, which is a bag filled with treats. Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch (or bag of sweets), and kids usually have to sing the Kleeschen song, which you can listen to below.
If you don't speak Luxembourgish, you can find a nifty translation of the song here. Always good to know what you're singing.
Do shops sell any specific seasonal goodies for Kleeschen?
Yes indeed! Shops sell the chocolate figurines of St Nicholas wrapped in foil, but you also see some Dutch treats as well, especially in Hema. The Dutch traditions include biscuits, yellow and pink sweets, and chocolate letters!
Tell me more about this Houseker guy. Is he like Zwarte Piet?
Houseker fulfils the same function as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, but does not exactly look the same. Houseker is meant to be the same intimidating companion who gives children sticks if they misbehave. Usually dressed in black robes, Houseker has a large bushy beard and, often, his face is painted black.
AFP describes Zwarte Piet as "usually performed by an adult with a blacked-up face, wearing an afro wig, earrings, gaudy costume and red lips -- a costume that has increasingly come under fire for being a racist stereotype."
The two figures are not identical, particularly as in legend, Zwarte Piet is an African slave freed by Kleeschen. According to the Luxembourgish historian Alain Atten, Houseker's name originates from the Peasants' War of 1798 (Klëppelkrich), when the peasants had their headquarters in Housen. This means Houseker was a man from Housen who supported the peasants in the war. Indeed, Houseker's apparel is reminiscent of that of a peasant at the time.
There isn't much more specific information as to the origins of Houseker, but the black face is still problematic. Is the character blacking up to mimic the skin colour of someone black? Or, is it, as others suggest, soot? The Luxembourgish case is a bit more ambiguous than the Dutch one, but the idea of having a "bogeyman" dressed up as a black person is one that causes some discomfort. However, it isn't the purpose of this article to debate the topic - it's just a part of the Kleeschen tradition that is worth being aware of. If the figure isn't rooted in racial dynamics, I think it would be easier to just forego the black face paint and allow the beard and cloak to depict the character.
Interesting.... Anything else worth knowing?
I think that's it, but if not please let us know in the comments. Whilst this has highlighted the racial complexities surrounding the Houseker/Zwarte Piet figure, I hope this has also been a useful insight to a Luxembourgish holiday that amps up the festive season!