A Chocolate Letter from Santa — The Sinterklaas Way

Rather than receiving letters from Santa, Dutch children tend to demand something much more delicious — a literal letter made of chocolate.  That’s right, Dutch kids want a chocolate letter.

Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus (and quite possibly the inspiration for the modern Coca-Cola version that we’ve come to know and love), and he has a busy season in the Netherlands. It starts when he shows up on his boat from Spain, and he drops off little presents all the way up to the 5th of December (6th if you’re reading this in Belgium). This last point is the day that’s named in his honor, and that’s the time when he lets loose with all of the best presents.

Boxes of chocolate letters in the Netherlands
Some chocolate letters. Image: Alex Hoskinson/Supplied

Sinterklaas and his friend Zwarte Piet sometimes hand the goodies to the kids directly, but they’re also known to sneak in through the chimney and leave them in clean little pairs of boots. But, one thing can always be counted on: each lucky youngster will get their first initial molded out of chocolate.

Where Did the Chocolate Letter Tradition Come From?

This delicious habit has changed forms relatively recently, but it’s actually been going on for centuries. One of the earliest traditions was parents getting a letter made of bread when their child was born, and this inspired the schoolteachers of the middle ages. Convents would teach the pupils to write, and their motivation was a letter formed from bread that could be eaten only after it was correctly formed in ink.

Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Sinterklaas riding through the streets. Image: Alex Hoskinson/Supplied

Later on, parents would lay out piles of presents for the kids, but they threw a sheet on top to keep the prying little eyes from knowing what was there. However, siblings would go to war with each other when trying to find their stack, so the parents needed a good way to mark them.

Well, why not just stick a letter on top with the first initial?

It worked, and the only thing lacking was the ability to make chocolate bars. The letters were made from pastries, or even sausages, but advances in the cocoa bean industry allowed for the chocolate versions to appear in the 20th century.

Now, chocolate is the most common form of the letters, and they’re typically made in melk (milk), puur (dark), and wit (white) variations.

I’m an Adult, Do I Get a Letter?

If you didn’t grow up as a little Hollander and think you’ve missed your chance, I might just have some good news for you. I’m a little older than your average Sinterklaas fan, but I happened to find a little present on my desk last week. The Sint seemed to have a little meeting with my boss, and he decided that everyone in the office had been good enough to receive a letter this year.

My colleagues and I were pretty confused to see that “Z” was the most common letter, but just before we all changed our names (mine would’ve been Zalex which is pretty cool), it hit me that “Z” is the first initial of the company. Very clever, Sinterklaas, I see what you did there.

Chocolate letter Z
A choclate letter from Sinterklaas! Image: Alex Hoskinson/Supplied

If you’re skeptical about the existence of an ancient saint who happily gives chocolate goodies to everyone, you can take your mistaken mindset to Albert Heijn and have your choice of all kinds of letters. But don’t go too late, or you’ll have to make do with whatever’s left.

For everyone else, remember to clean your boots and leave them in front of the fireplace. You never know when the Sint might drop by with a chocolate letter…

Final Fun Fact

The letters are made with varying thickness, and this ensures that everyone gets the same amount of chocolate, no matter how elaborate their initials are.

Did you get a chocolate letter this Pakjesavond? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: Arch/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Editors note: This article was originally published in December 2015 and was updated in December 2020 for your reading pleasure.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I never comment but this time I have to. “Santa” and Sinterklaas are absolutely not the same thing. They are totally different festivities, and calling Sinterklaas “the Dutch Santa” is just not how it works. “Santa” or “Santa Claus” in the US and the UK has nothing to do with the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition. Even more, here in the Netherlands they are basically competitors. First there are the big Sinterklaas celebrations on 5 December, and maybe later some people will talk about “de Kerstman”, but not many children believe that story. The US and UK Santa brings gifts for Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklaas brings gifts on the 5th of December, and Sinterklaas has no relation whatsoever with Christmas.

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