The seventeenth-century Dutch celebrated four winter holidays: Saint Nicholas’ Day on December sixth (later celebrated on the Eve of that day as it is still today), Christmas, New Year’s, and Epiphany (Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Three Kings) on January sixth. For children, Saint Nicholas’ Day was the most important, and the traditions from this celebration have been absorbed into our American Christmas festivities. Virtually nothing is certain about the real Saint Nicholas. His legend may have grown out of life stories of several bishops by that name. According to tradition, he was a fourth-century bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, who became associated with anonymous gift-giving. Saint Nicholas was also the patron saint of sailors, who brought his cult via the sea routes from Eastern to Western Europe. In the Low Countries, he was often the main character in the miracle plays performed in town squares. This made him less a venerated saint and more of a popular figure. He became the kindervriend, or children’s friend, who brought presents and sweet treats to the small folk. The latter included duivekaters (holiday bread), candied cinnamon bark, or flat, chewy honey cake formed in a wooden mold. He was so much a part of yearly family celebrations that even during the Reformation the Kinderfeest (children’s feast), could not be eradicated by government and Protestant church officials and the celebration has lasted until this day.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the American novelist Washington Irving (1783–1859), observing the Saint Nicholas’ Day celebrations by his Dutch American neighbors, borrowed its central figure and made him part of the American Christmas festivities. He changed the tall, thin, stern-but-just bishop into our short, rotund, and jolly Santa Claus. Nineteenth-century illustrators created further embellishments to his appearance, while different ethnic groups added their traditions, and the result was the secular component of the American Christmas celebration.
In the Netherlands, the religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost were (and still are) celebrated for two days. Deacons’ records of the Dutch Reformed Church show they were celebrated this way in New Netherland as well.
New Year’s Eve was especially noisy, with the firing of guns to bring in the New Year. Ordinances in both the Netherlands and New Netherland eventually prohibited such behavior. The special treat for New Year’s Day in the Netherlands was nieuwjaarskoeken (thin, crisp wafers), which originated in the eastern part of the country and adjoining parts of Germany. These wafers were made in a special wafer iron. The oblong or round long-handled irons, made by blacksmiths, created imprints of a religious or secular nature on the wafers. Wafer irons were often given as a wedding gift, even in this country. Enormous quantities of wafers were prepared on New Year’s Day. They were consumed by family, servants, and guests and distributed to children, who went from house to house singing New Year’s songs, while collecting their share of treats along the way. There is ample evidence in diaries and letters that Dutch Americans continued the custom of visiting each other on New Year’s Day. In New Netherland, however, the nieuwjaarskoeken were molded in wooden cake-boards, instead of wafer irons (see recipes in the handwritten cookbooks of Elizabeth Ann Breese Morse [d. 1828] and Maria Lott Lefferts [1786–1865] of Brooklyn). The American New Year’s cake is a combination of two Dutch pastries brought here by the early settlers, the nieuwjaarskoeken described above and spiced, chewy, honey cakes formed in a wooden mold or cake-board. It was in the late eighteenth century that this homemade pastry prepared in heirloom wafer irons by the Dutch changed to a mostly store-bought product purchased by the population at large. Bakers found it much more expedient to roll out the dough, imprint it with a cake-board, cut it out, and bake it. Because the pastry was not connected with a religious celebration, most groups easily adopted it.
Culinary historian Stephen Schmidt holds that Americans became acquainted with Dutch cookies through nieuwjaarskoeken (New Year’s cakes), bringing the word cookie into American English. Recipes for cookies appeared for the first time in the earliest published American cookbook, compiled by Amelia Simmons in 1796. Cake-boards developed into a unique kind of folk art, similar to their counterparts in the Netherlands, recording important events of the time, political figures, or the American eagle.
The last Dutch winter holiday, Epiphany, did not leave a lasting mark on American life. In the Netherlands it was a rather rowdy occasion, celebrated within the family circle with waffles and pancakes served as the standard fare.
The spring religious feast of Easter was celebrated in some parts of the Netherlands with large bonfires and most everywhere with the consumption of Easter eggs. No specific mention of Easter (other than the collection of offerings by the deacons of the Dutch Reformed Church) has been found in New Netherland.
Pinkster, Pentecost, or Whitsuntide, the third most important holiday in the Christian calendar, which occurs fifty days after Easter, was celebrated in the Netherlands as well as in New Netherland. In the Old World, the secular festivities associated with Pinksteren, as it is now called, were a kind of combined May Day and fertility celebration. To foster a good harvest, a young girl was chosen as the Pinksterblom (Pinkster flower) and was carried around bedecked with flowers by the children of the town, who collected coins to buy treats. New Netherland diaries relate how the Dutch settlers gave their slaves the day off and everyone frolicked and ate large quantities of eggs. After the Revolution and in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the holiday tended to be more and more a celebration for African Americans. New York City, where freed slaves had arrived in large numbers, was especially known for its lavish Pinkster festivals, and in Albany Pinkster is said to have lasted a whole week. As an interesting aside, in his article “Pinkster Carnival: Africanisms in the Hudson River Valley,” Professor A. J. Williams-Myers of SUNY New Paltz, NY, asserts that as a result of the Pinkster festivals “for almost two hundred years some forms of Africanisms were able to survive within the institution of slavery in New York… These were passed on from generation to generation, from Old World African to New World African, so that by the nineteenth century Pinkster carnival had become an African celebration.”
In both the Netherlands and New Netherland, there were many additional events associated with special foods. These include yearly fairs, where waffles, wafers, and olie-koecken were sold; the birth of a child, with its special drink of kandeel (wine with eggs and spices; see recipes); and weddings, where guests feasted on the best the household had to offer. That even funerals were part of the well-defined culinary customs of the colony may be gleaned from the recipes for doot coeckjes (funeral cookies) and spiced wine of Maria Sanders van Rensselaer (1749–1830). At all festivities the Dutch proved to be truly hearty eaters. For example, a typical three-course feast to mark the accession to office of two Groningen professors featured turkey, hare, haunch of mutton, ham, veal, and half a lamb, all served with bread, butter, cheese, mustard, anchovies, lemons, and wine. It is telling, therefore, that Adriaen van der Donck, who served as sheriff in Rensselaerswijck, (now Albany) specifically noted that Native Americans “have no excessive eaters or gluttons among them” (1968).
For more information on New Netherland, please visit the New Netherland Research Center at the NYS Library in Albany, or go to:
Mushroom Quiche without a Crust
The recipe was adapted from Traktaet van de Kampernoeljes, Genaamd Duivelsbrood (Treatise of Mushrooms, Named “Devil’s Bread”) (1668) by Franciscus van Sterbeeck. You’ll find it is remarkably easy to make.
- 10 ounces white mushrooms, wiped clean
- 1 clove garlic, minced, or 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
- ¼ teaspoon EACH freshly ground pepper, salt, and dried marjoram
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- 1 cup grated aged Gouda cheese
- 3 eggs, beaten with ⅓ cup of milk
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Break off mushroom stems and chop. In a large bowl, combine stems, garlic or chives, seasoning, cheese, and eggs. Place mushroom caps, opening up, in a 9-inch pie plate in an even layer and pour the egg mixture over the caps. Bake for 10 minutes at 375°F and reduce the heat to 325°F and bake for 30 minutes until set. Cut into wedges and serve.
For a modern meal: serve with a large mixed salad and crusty rolls or whole grain bread to make a light but delicious lunch. This dish might also be added as a vegetarian option to Thanksgiving dinner.