It’s hard to explain the Dutch holiday of Sinterklaasavond to Americans; that’s because there is no meal connected to it. Americans are used to having a Thanksgiving feast; Christian and Jewish holidays are also highlighted by a meal. This is why I explain the Dutch festivity as “an ongoing dessert party.”
The main gift-giving holiday in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas — also known as the feast of Saint Nicholas — is celebrated on December 6, but actually starts on the evening of December 5. On that afternoon, schools and offices close early so that revelers have a chance to do last-minute gift wrapping and other preparations. The evening is then celebrated with the opening of the presents, which are often disguised and accompanied by a rhyme or a poem, and sweets galore.
But who was Saint Nicholas? The man who ultimately became known as this saint is believed to have been born in present-day Turkey. The son of well-to-do parents, he apparently was pious early on, eventually became a bishop, and was even imprisoned during the Roman persecution of early Christians. Though there is little contemporary documentation on his life, many of the stories associated with him depict a benevolent gift-giver, more often than not bestowing his gifts anonymously. He died on December 6, hence the date for his commemoration.
The legend of Saint Nicholas came to the New World with Columbus, who named Haiti’s Saint Nicholas Harbor for him; but the more important story has to do with the Dutch. When they settled the colony of New Netherland — a vast area wedged between New England and Virginia — they brought with them seeds, trees, stock, cattle, and their foodways and customs. They and their descendants continued to celebrate Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) Day as their ethnic — but secular — holiday well into the 19th century.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus began with Washington Irving’s A History of New York in 1809. Irving describes Saint Nicholas riding the rooftops and “drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pocket.” There was already a precedent for a Father Christmas figure in Anglo-American culture; in the “melting-pot” way common in this country, Santa Claus became an American adaptation of the beloved Dutch figure, and eventually merged with the Christmas holiday. His appearance changed as well, from a tall bishop to a jolly, round, friendly fellow.
Today, the Sinterklaas celebration is nowhere as popular as it is in the Netherlands. But in the states of Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where large groups of Dutch immigrants settled in the mid-19th century, this enduring holiday continues to this day. It is also celebrated in the Valley, specifically in Rhinebeck — although the story has been altered somewhat. (Find out about the Rhinebeck Sinterklaas celebration here.) Traditionally, the evening is filled with laughter and happy togetherness. Hot chocolate and mulled wine is served, along with crisp spice cookies, thick hard or chewy gingerbread, puff pastries with almond paste, fondant, marzipan, and lots of chocolate.
In honor of our region’s Dutch heritage — and because who doesn’t love an ongoing dessert party — I’m happy to share some traditional Dutch cookie recipes. Happy Holidays!