To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to the Cronos Saint Nicholas party. I may still be young, but I’ve seen my share of parties dedicated to the man in red and, frankly, there’s usually little of interest for those of us over the age of ten. Although I’d heard water cooler chit chat about how the annual party was usually a bit more interesting than most, I still didn’t really have any great expectations. That all changed on a drizzly Saturday afternoon when I arrived at the Waagnatie in Antwerp, where I took an amazing journey around the world.
Ever wish you could be a kid again? I do on occasion. I suppose that’s only normal. I have to say, though, as I walked around at the Cronos Saint Nicholas party that feeling was with me the entire time. A cheerful Zwarte Piet eagerly welcomed me to the party and pointed me toward the counter where I could check in for the world journey I was about to embark on. Don’t misunderstand me, though. You see, ‘journey around the world’ was the theme of this children’s party, so I wasn’t actually going to be headed around the globe. Fortunately what Cronos had in mind was just as amazing, because every corner of the world could be found in the three huge halls just beyond the doors. My first port of call was a dreamy funfair, complete with merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and lovely Christmas decorations. Accompanied by traditional barrel-organ music conjured up by my imagination, the scene was complete. I didn’t hang around long, though, because the spectacular sight of the large fairground attractions at the very beginning aroused in me an overwhelming curiosity to see what else the party had in store.
Those who were perhaps less charmed by the fun-loving fairground tableau, may have found their element in the next room, where a magical rain forest-theme prevailed. An extensive bar with free refreshing drinks and another fairground attraction – this time the classic mini-Jeeps on rails that take passengers on a little safari – filled the room while the catering staff continuously circulated with platters offering a royal selection of exotic snacks. Smiling faces were everywhere, and not just those of the children; the parents clearly also enjoyed the happy, stress-free atmosphere exuded by this otherworldly place. The whole room radiated a warm, Mediterranean atmosphere that was certainly welcome on such a cold, late autumn day.
Stepping beyond the next portal we were whisked away from the warm South to the Far East… the following hall was draped from top to bottom in Asian style decorations. The smell of wok oil and spring rolls filled my nose and a large red dragon, familiar from photos of the Chinese New Year, wound past me. And suddenly, there he was: to my left, on a big stage pretty much at the very centre of the building, the great man himself on an imposing throne. Saint Nicholas, accompanied by a large delegation of Zwarte Piets, had apparently just arrived and was addressing the children of the Cronos staff. As was to be expected, though, Saint Nick didn’t have the full attention of all the children, because small stalls where kids could fly drones or have their face painted were scatted about the room. While the Saint drew most of the attention away from the stalls, I wandered on, from the Far East to the Wild West, where a small frontier village decor set the scene for yet more theme-related entertainment. There was an archery range at one end of the room, while arts and crafts were going on here and there, and a mechanical bull brought out the rodeo-beast in many a Saint Nicholas party guest. While the journey from place to place on this trip around the world may not have required much travelling, there was certainly plenty to see and do at every step along the way.
As if the merry-go-round, mechanical bull and dozens of small stalls were not impressive enough, to top it all off – at the very back of the Waagnatie – I arrived at what was called the Cold North. I had to look twice when I saw someone several meters further on gliding along as if he were on ice. My second look confirmed that my eyes were not deceiving me: the Cold North included an actual indoor skating rink of the kind you might expect in the market square of any of Flanders’ larger cities. Skates were available to the right of the rink, and the ice was covered with laughing children going every which way while many of the fathers relaxed with a pint at the tables on the periphery. Apparently the planners had given careful thought to saving the best for last, because the skating rink was also the final attraction in the packed Waagnatie, which by this time seemed to be more an indoor version of a giant amusement park. Having by this time visited the entire playground paradise, I began my search for Katrien Van Houwenhove who, along with colleague Christel Fierens, organized this spectacular party. I didn’t have to search long, because I found her at the photo booth, where visitors could pick up their photo of their visit to St. Nick.
‘At Cronos I’m responsible for all the administration related the company cars, but for fifteen years now I have also organized the annual Saint Nicholas party on the side,’ tells Van Houwenhove once we have found a reasonably quiet spot away from all the hubbub. ‘I actually just started out as a helping hand. Years ago we used to do everything ourselves: we made snacks for the guests, packed all the gifts and handled all the other little jobs that go into throwing a party. Back then there were naturally far fewer people working at Cronos Groep, but these days there are many more children, so our task gradually shifted from handling all those practical tasks to organizing a huge bash like this.’ I can’t help but tell her how impressed I was by it all as I stepped into this never-never land. When I share my sense of amazement at what awaited me, a huge smile fills her face. ‘There won’t be many more parties for the entire Cronos Groep, so this time we really wanted to make it something special. Fortunately we no longer have to worry too much about the practical matters because we work in close cooperation with event agency Balthazar and they handle just about everything. Otherwise I can’t imagine I would ever find time for my regular job at Cronos.’
When you arrange an event like the Cronos Saint Nicholas party and try to make each year’s event bigger and better than the last you set the bar very high indeed. I therefore ask Katrien Van Houwenhove what she still hopes to achieve with the tradition in the future. ‘Because each year’s event has to accommodate an ever growing number of employees, we know we will not be able to continue the tradition of the Saint Nicholas party forever. Which year will be the last is not yet certain, but we do know we want to end in style. We already have a great idea we’ve been playing with for quite some time, but we would prefer to keep to ourselves for the time being. In any event, I hope we can continue to hold the party for a few more years before it effectively becomes too large to organize for Cronos Groep as a whole. The party is already such a big success that kids up to fifteen years old still love to come. Even colleagues without children enjoy sharing in the festivities. Hopefully, we can keep it up a while longer.’
I thank Katrien for her hospitality and the precious time she afforded me before heading back into the huge halls of the Waagnatie where I bump into Cronos founder Jef de Wit, who is clearly in his element. I cannot resist asking him why so much trouble is put into this party. ‘Cronos has held an annual Saint Nicholas party for many, many years. In the past, Saint Nick personally delivered gifts to each home, but as we grew that became a bit too much work. Then we started organizing parties, first at an indoor playground and then later at other locations. Holding a Saint Nicholas party where the Saint sits on a throne and children queue up in front of him is generally how it’s done, but that’s but boring, isn’t it? I’d rather the kids have an entire day of amusement and that there are plenty of fun things to do besides just the visit to Saint Nick. So, you see, it has become so much more than just Saint Nicholas.’ Then there is no more time for my questions, because a film crew from the regional television station sweeps the Cronos founder away for a brief interview. As he turns away I find myself nodding in agreement. Compared to all the other Saint Nicholas parties I ever attended, this is truly the first that has been a small paradise on earth. Did I mention that I occasionally long to be a kid again? Of course I did… Oh, look, a Ferris wheel!