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A secularist Belgian mayor suggested that his municipality's yearly Christmastime celebration of Saint Nicholas was due for some inclusivity. In what has retroactively been characterized as a joke, Saint-Gilles Mayor Jean Spinette expressed the desire to augment his region's Dec. 6 festivities commemorating the Greek Christian in order catch up with the times and accommodate migrants from Morocco — a 99% Sunni Muslim nation in North Africa that restricts the practice of Christianity and punishes its public adherents.
Saint Nicholas, the dominant inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus, was apparently born rich but gave his inheritance to the poor. The bishop is also credited with donating money to a father who was compelled to sell his daughters into prostitution and stopping a storm to save ill-fated sailors. The Russian Orthodox Church holds him in high esteem, and the Catholic Church regards him as the patron saint of children.
Every year, a man dresses up as the historic figure and visits schoolchildren around Saint-Gilles, a Brussels satellite, dispensing gifts.
Spinette indicated he struck a partnership with the Moroccan town of Berkane, known for its production of clementines, reported Sudinfo.
"I would find it comical to have a Sidi Nicolas who provides clementines to children," the mayor told La Derniere Heure, replacing "saint" with an Arabic honorific.
"It's a way to find a link with the Muslim community in the town," said the mayor. "You should know that many people residing in Saint-Gilles come from this region of Morocco."
13.4% of Belgium's population is foreign-born. According to the government, 17.3% of Belgians with a foreign background and non-Belgians come from North Africa.
Beyond the title change and a new gig peddling Moroccan goods, the mayor indicated he had other changes in mind for the Greek saint.
"For us, Saint Nicholas must be environmentally friendly, respectful of religion, and intersectional," said Spinette.
Spinette alluded to the consequences of failing to placate modern sensibilites, adding, "Father Fouettard was fired a long time ago."
Father Fouettard or "Father Whipper" is a sinister character who served as Saint Nicholas' nemesis in an apocryphal 13th-century tale and in many more since. Whereas the saint protects and rewards good children, according to legend, Fouettard would chastise and sometimes murder naughty children.
Yannis Bakhouche, a Reform Movement section president in Saint-Gilles, said in a statement to DH, "It seems that the mayor is trying to divert attention from much more serious problems by launching this idea of changing the name of Saint-Nicolas to Sidi Nicolas. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic tradition that enchants all children, regardless of their origin or religion."
"It's a time when we come together, share sweets, chocolates, and create memories together. Why [would Spinette] want to change something that brings everyone together over trifles? This has never been a demand from the Muslim community, it is truly astonishing," said Bakhouche.
"We should work together to resolve these concrete problems that affect each of us on a daily basis instead of trying to please with ideas that divide," continued Bakhouche. "I believe that our municipality needs leaders who take care of real priorities and who unite the Saint-Gilloise community rather than dividing it with futile ideas."
Facing backlash, Spinette suggested in a subsequent Meta post that he has no intention of changing "the name of Saint-Nicolas or this beautiful tradition appreciated by all children in Saint-Gilles. This is obviously not the case and the Saint-Nicolas event is particularly appreciated in all the schools in our town. He will be celebrated this year as always and I deplore this unnecessary controversy."
While the Christian tradition in Saint-Gilles may survive this year, elsewhere in Europe it appears to be getting the axe.
The European Conservative highlighted how the Austrian municipality of Plainfield in Salzburg has told event organizers to keep Saint Nicholas — often wearing a bishop's miter and a visibly Christian cross — away from its kindergarten due to concerns about "diversity" and "cultural differences."
Cultural differences have been recently cited elsewhere in the region for another kind of change.
Blaze News recently reported that a school in northern Germany is in the process of changing the name of a kindergarten because "Kindertagesstätte 'Anne Frank'" is apparently not diverse or inclusive enough and fails to resonate with immigrant families.
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Joseph MacKinnon is a staff writer for Blaze News.