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?!

Sinterklaas letters in Arabic

Sinterklaas letters in Arabic


Guest blogger: Rebekah Lawler

rebekah

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.

20 Responses

  1. Linda

    Clogs? You must be kidding…
    Even the Dutch wear shoes by now 🙂

    Reply
    • Bonnie - The Dane in Dutchland

      People here still wear clogs too… I have seen it. Looks might uncomfortable though.

      Reply
  2. anridde

    I work in a Dutch store in canada! We got 10,000 letters in at the beginning of November and they’re almost gone! Definitely one of my fav pitied traditions 🙂

    Reply
    • Stuff Dutch People Like

      Wow – that’s a lot of happy customers! What store?

      Reply
  3. Lisanne

    Banketletters (the letters made of pastry) are still in use and a loved tradition as well 😉 We just don’t put them in our shoes, as they are to big and can break easily 😛 Banketletters are usually eaten together, while the chocolate ones are just for the one who’s name it spells.

    Reply
  4. henklangerak

    You do not really need to change your name in November, because all the letters have the same weight in chocolate. Therefore, for example, the I is thicker and the W or M is flatter.

    Reply
  5. Ingrid

    My mum always got an ‘M’, my dad a ‘W’, brother a ‘W’ also. I would get an ‘I’ but being the baby in the family they made sure I got an ‘M’ also, as soon as they saw the disappointment on my face.

    Reply
  6. Peg

    In Minnesota and Iowa (USA) we still give pastry Dutch letters as gifts…on Christmas Eve…they correspond with the families last names. And here as well, Christmas is the only time you will find them at Dutch bakeries throughout the midwest.

    Reply
  7. Paul Van Patten

    Liked the article, love chocolate, dark for me if anyone is so inclinded. But aren’t the little wooden shoes actually called sabots?

    Reply
  8. Georges JANSEN (real Dutchie name)

    Super story. But you can’t keep all all the chocolate letters. I want someeeeeeed as well

    Reply
  9. Miranda Philippen

    well they don’t just disappear after December 5th anymore… most stores put them on SALE (since they can’t keep them till next year) and you can buy them for half price 😉 so if you are a true chocoholic.. go out on December 6th and buy what is left for half price…

    Reply
  10. Geartsje Wong

    Beautifully described and written. I remember that precious time when Sinterklaas brought my letter. Geartsje

    Reply
  11. Stella

    No, gluten intolerance did not hamper that long time ago. It is from de fifties that the “refined’ grains multiplied the glutinen part from ca. 4 to 40%. Guess at first this glutinous intolerance was not noticed. The gluten protects against the weather and moulds. The the crops were bigger and more secure.

    Reply
  12. Iris

    I actually prefer the I! Because the letter is a lot smaller and would just look ridiculous if they made it thicker, you get two I’s in one box to the weight is the same 🙂 Two I’s are the same weight as one W, but it somehow still feels like you get more because there are two.

    Reply
  13. Stuart | Invading Holland

    I ate my chocolate letter with in 48 hours. I spent the next 24 hours wondering if I could get away with ‘accidently’ eating my wife’s and daughter’s chocolate letter since both their names also start with S.

    Reply
  14. Jeremyofsoh

    Rather change my name to Uvuvwevwevwe onyetenyevwe ugwemubwem ossas

    Reply

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