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 like Santa Claus’ less-famous brother (and quite possibly the inspiration for the modern Coca-Cola version that we’ve come to know and love), but he’s quite popular in the Netherlands. In fact, he may even be favoured!
The celebrations begin when he shows up on his boat from Spain and then drops off little presents all the way up to December 5 (December 6, if you’re reading this in Belgium).
December 5 is officially Sinterklaas — a day that’s named in his honour, and that’s the time when he lets loose with all of the best presents.
Sometimes, Sinterklaas and his friend Zwarte Piet 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 moulded out of chocolate.
Where did the Dutch chocolate letter tradition come from?
This delicious tradition has changed forms relatively recently, but it’s been going on for centuries. One of the earliest versions was parents having a letter made out 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.
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 distinguishing it from today’s letters was the lack of ability to make chocolate bars. Instead, the letters were made from pastries or even sausages.
However, advances in the cocoa bean industry allowed for the chocolate versions to appear in the 20th century — woop woop!
Now, chocolate is the most common form of the letters, and they’re typically made in melk (milk), puur (dark), and wit (white) chocolate variations.
Fun fact: The letters are made with varying thicknesses, ensuring that everyone gets the same amount of chocolate, no matter how elaborate their initials are. Clever! (And very Dutch.)
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.
If you’re sceptical 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…
Did you get a chocolate letter this Pakjesavond? Tell us in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2015, and was fully updated in November 2023 for your reading pleasure.