"It doesn't matter WHO he is, just tell him you've been good, alright? That ring looks sharp"
Pity, my friends, the confusion of the children of Belgium around this time of year, when not one, but two formidable white bearded gentlemen in red costumes are bandied around to threaten them to behave.
Yes, in Belgium, in defiance of their common origins, "Saint Nicolas" and "Père Noël are treated as two entirely different red-garbed benefactors, who just happen to look similar and rock up at the same time of year.
I have a LOT to say about this, it makes my brain melt (a whole new festival at which I have to buy my children presents? From the same guy in a red suit but under another name?), so will almost certainly return to the topic this week in the run up to 6 December, but for today, I thought I would assist anyone with bearded gift-giver confusion with my handy cut out and keep guide. David Sedaris does it better than I could though.
What are you wearing?
a) I am wearing this lovely red bishop's dress with white underskirt. I have a nice red pointy hat with a cross on it, and a curly ended stick, white gloves, and a big fuck off red ring. What I'm trying to convey with this outfit is do NOT fuck with me. I see you when you are sleeping AND when you are awake. I know if you've been bad or good and I have a big stick.
b) A cosy red knitted suit with cotton wool trim. Very cuddly! Hop up here on my knee and stroke it.
How do you get around?
a) On a white horse. Or sometimes a donkey. Accompanied by various accolytes, sometimes jingling their chains or cracking whips at passing children. You might get an orange thrown at your head if you're really lucky.
b) In a sleigh pulled by reindeer, yo ho ho.
Where do you live?
a) In Spain. That's where I get the oranges from.
b) In Lapland of course! That's where the reindeer are happiest.
Christ to the fuck - who or WHAT is that next to you?
a) Who, him?
That's the Père Fouettard (literally, whipping father). Or Black Pete. His job is to whip bad children. Or, alternatively, to put them in a sack and kick them to Spain. Or hit them with a stick. Whatever. It depends on his mood. Why is he blacked up like that? Oh, that's the soot from the chimney. Possibly. Or not. He might be a moorish slave, but generally we try and skirt around that these days.
b) Just a minimum wage elf. No need to be alarmed.
What do you give good children?
a) I put nuts and stuff in their shoes. Speculoos, chocolate money, oranges. Maybe a little coal.
b) Oh, you know, Nintendo, Littlest Pet Shop, whatever.
And how about bad ones?
a) See above. I get Père Fouettard to put them in a sack and kick them to Spain. Or in other places, I might beat them myself, or put them in a sack and drown them in the river. If I am in a good mood I might just give them coal. Or a stick. Whatever. You've got to use your instincts in this game.
b) There are no bad children!
Anything else I should know?
a) I collect children's dummies from them and put them in giant Nutella pots
b) I was only joking about sitting on my knee.
Mostly (a)s - Probably St Nicolas. Approach with caution. Make it clear that you have been VERY good before engaging in dialogue.
Mostly (b)s - Probably Father Christmas. Safe to approach unless in Selfridges.