When a capital city chooses such a symbol to display to the rest of the world, they must either have a strange cultural heritage or a great sense of humour, or both. For Brussels citizens and all previous generations who have lived in Brussels, Manneken Pis is a symbol of Zwanze. Zwanze is a word in Brusseleir (the dialect of Brussels) that expresses not only humour but also a way of life. It is the art of telling funny stories, that are not entirely true, slightly exaggerated, where one makes fun of themselves and its audience at the same time. The popular folklore stories surrounding Manneken Pis (a little boy turned to stone by a witch, a Duke’s son saving the city from fire) are exactly that - Brussels tales or Zwanze.
Manneken Pis or "Petit Julien" means little boy in Brusseleir. The first Manneken Pis statue was built in 1388. It was made out of stone and used to be a drinking fountain. The version displayed to the public today is from 1619 and was built by Jérôme Duquesnoy. But the one in the streets is a replica. Due to its timeless popularity, the little boy got kidnapped more than one can count.
It all started in the 18th century when on one drunken night some French soldiers stole the statue of Manneken Pis as a prank. King Louis XV, who was governing over Brussels at the time, got really upset and ordered the statue to be returned. To teach his soldiers a lesson, he dressed up Manneken Pis in a golden outfit and knighted him “Order of St Louis”. From then on, French soldiers had to salute the statue every time they passed by it. This is exactly what’s cool about being a king, you can do whatever you want and no one can argue with you.
From drunken soldiers to drunken students, it is still of tradition today for Manneken Pis to get kidnapped during Saint-V (Saint-Vehaegen) every year, a celebration day of student folklore and beer fest. The original statue can be seen at the Museum of Brussels, Maison du Roi. Copies of Manneken Pis in various shapes, sizes, colors, taste, and forms can be found all over the city, and of course on every postcard to send to grandma.
Maybe to honour the trend once started by King Louis XV, the City of Brussels still dresses Manneken Pis in cute costumes a couple of times a month. The city even employs a tailor whose sole job is to create costumes for that little man (think Dracula for Halloween, a soldier for the National Day, etc). With over 900 outfits in his wardrobe, there is no "I do not have anything to wear" for Manneken. You can admire the entire collection of Mister Manneken's wardrobe at its Museum at the corner of Rue de l’Étuve and Rue du Chêne.
Talking about Belgian humour... Belgium sure knew how to respond to Manneken Pis's increasing popularity in all seriousness. Sister Jeanneke Pis, located next to infamous beer bar Delirium, and dog Zinneke Pis, on Rue des Chartreux, make for a happy united family. Let's Zwanze!
You can also read my article on my favorite folklore stories of Manneken Pis on Itinari: Brussels Folklore Stories; Manneken Pis, the Witch, the Duke and a City on Fire.
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