“That’s baby Jesus,” whispered Natasha, as if not to waken the child; Leo merely stared with saucer eyes. On a mound of straw deep in a manger lay a life-size porcelain infant with a beatific smile. Gathered around were carved wooden figures and even live donkeys.
The tableau stood in Brussels’ Grand-Place, at the start of its hugely popular traditional Christmas Market. Since moving to the city, I’d made a point of visiting every year. This time was different, however: I was taking a friend’s seven-year-old twins. Before setting off, I’d worried whether the market’s sparkle would work on the modern child-about-town.
Leaving the nativity scene and its pool of warm lantern-light, we scrunched across the snow-crusted cobbles under a star-bright sky. The Grand-Place is one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, ringed by ancient guildhouses and crowned by the pinnacles of Brussels’ Gothic town hall; tonight it looked something out of a fairy-tale, with shimmering balls of crystal light and giant snowflakes projected onto the centuries-old stone. At the square’s centre towered a fir Christmas tree, and near its foot was a roped-off space.
After we’d found ourselves a gap in the crowd, Leo and Natasha watched open-mouthed as stilt-walking fire-eaters weaved and bobbed, tumbling firebrands and roaring dragon-flame. Entranced, the twins could probably have stopped here all evening – it was only the frost nipping at their toes that eventually persuaded them to move on. Next came a sea of wooden stalls surrounding the city’s Bourse (stock exchange). Illuminated by hundreds of strands of clear fairy-lights, the air steamed with the breath of the milling crowds. Each little kiosk had a seasonal speciality: jointed wooden figurines, Lebküchen (cookies of chewy gingerbread), wreaths of holly. Dithering with the pleasure of making a purchase, the twins ran from stall to stall; in vain did I point out the charming clay animals just as they plumped for some lurid lightsticks. Oh well…
With faces now bathed in ghoulish green, we continued to Place Sainte Catherine and massed ranks of catering vans. Despite the overwhelming variety (from Brazilian and Vietnamese to burgers), Leo insisted he wasn’t hungry, while Natasha announced she wanted something properly Belgian. Resisting the caramel lure of waffle fumes, I steered us to a huge strip-lit trailer and ordered two portions of golden frites smothered in mayonnaise; in the Belgian way, the chips were double-fried for crispy bite and feathery centre and were totally delicious.
We picked up soft drinks (Glühwein for me) and, skirting a magical, fantastical carousel, stood eating and drinking beside the giant skating rink set up on the old fishmarket, waves of cold rolling off the ice. I suddenly noticed it was long past eight: time only for a last ride on the roundabout: Leo chose a deep-sea squid, Natasha a pumpkin carriage. The generator hummed, pistons smacked, and the twins rode up and down, round and round. As they finally slowed, their faces were exalted, their grins enormous.
Basking in their reflected delight, my earlier uncertainties were fully answered. Not only had the children surrendered to the wonder and excitement – they'd doubled my own pleasure and rekindled a Christmas magic that as an adult I only dimly remembered.
Read about family breaks in Brussels.