If there was ever a time of year to change your name from Ilka to Wilka, it’s before the fifth of December in the Netherlands, when Sinterklaas brings presents to children. Why would you want to change your name? You’ve been good right? RIGHT?! Well, you’d consider a name change only if you were seriously greedy for chocolate.
You see, the Dutch love to give each other chocolate letters for Sinterklaas. These letters are supposed to correspond to the first letter of your first (real!) name. They are made from dark, milk or white chocolate – sometimes with hazelnuts or fruit & nut combos, decorated or plain – they are all lekker! Now, I think you’ll agree with me that those skinny letter ‘I’s don’t seem to match up to their weightier friend, the larger looking ‘W’s! So, for the next week, I’m officially Wilka to anyone who loves me enough to shove chocolate in my shoe.
This cool tradition means that from the middle of November, till Sinterklaas’ visit on the 5th December, Dutch kids put out their tiny little clogs (or crocs, depending on preference) for Sint to pop a choccy letter in there. They are also given as gifts to friends, colleagues and family members. Or me. Just give them all to me.
Here’s a few more things you may not know about those awesome chocolade letters…
- They come in all sizes and fonts and are about as Dutch a tradition as Christmas pud is to the Brits.
- In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pastry, not chocolate, letters were given as presents…Next time you are perusing 16th century Dutch still life paintings, see if you can spot one!
- In Germanic times, children were given an edible bread letter for luck. Then in the middle ages, nuns taught kids the alphabet using bread letters. When you were able to write your letter, you got to eat it. (I’m guessing that gluten intolerance could seriously hamper your knowledge of letters back then.)
- In the 19th century, parents / Sinterklaas hid the kids’ presents under blankets, and needed to identify which shrouded bundle belonged to which child. They used the child’s initial in pastry placed on top so everyone know whose loot was underneath!
- In 20th century the first chocolate letters became available…and were a big hit.
- Q, U, X, Y or Z are pretty difficult to find – some manufacturers don’t even make them! I know, I was scandalised too!! So if your little end-of-alphabet-initialled child is sobbing into his or her empty shoe, get you to Albert Heijn – that famous Dutch Supermarket – because they are guaranteed to have all the letters. If you still can’t find any Z’s it’s possibly because they are all napping in the back. Zzzzzzzz
- Many (greedy women like me) also think that some letters are the biggest and give you the most bites of chocolate per letter. However, and the chocoholics amongst us need to take note, the chocolate letter manufacturers ensure that every letter of the delicious chocolate alphabet weighs exactly the same. How? Something to do with precision chocolate letter design with different densities of chocolate or by making one thicker than the other. Mystery solved, though I’m not sure if I’m entirely convinced!
- Dutchies abroad love them some chocolate letters….Canadians love their letters so much they import a million each year! Greed or homesickness? Or a combination?!
This heavenly chocolate alphabet is only available for a short time, so don’t forget to stock up! As soon as Sinterklaas is over,…as swiftly as these lovely treats have appeared on our shop shelves…they pull a disappearing act and stay away for a whole year! I wonder if they need to hire someone (called WILKA) to eat the leftover letters?!
Guest blogger: Rebekah Lawler
Rebekah Lawler is an Irish writer, living in Dutch suburbia. She spends her days zooming around in her battered bakfiets with the two smalls, fascinated by all the Dutchness around her.