Though in the USA, Santa Claus is the symbol of the holiday season, in Europe it is St. Nicholas that children wait up for on December 5th. Sint Nikolaas, in Dutch, is then typically known as Sinterklaas, and is considered the precursor to the American concept of Santa. The figure of Sinterklaas is indeed similar to Santa, a benevolent figure wearing a red robe and delivering presents to children, though he rides a horse on his journey from house to house. Kids, instead of leaving milk and cookies, leave carrots for the horse beside their shoes (which is where the presents get delivered – if you are naughty you will be left with an empty shoe).
Sweets abound at Sinterklaas celebrations both on the 5th and 6th, including one of our favorites, the crisp, cinnamon speculaas cookies. Other sweet treats include pepernoten (same as German pfeffernüsse) and kruidnoten, similar to speculaas, but in more of a nugget shape. Many Dutch recipes instruct you to make kruidnoten with pre-blended “speculaas spice” which is definitely not available in the USA. However, to make your own, the Dutch Baker’s Daughter has a good DiY speculaas spice breakdown. Another food tradition is getting a large chocolate letter representing your first name called a chocoladeletter. Sinterklaas is definitely a day with tradition – many of the festive occurrences in this 17th century painting by Jan Steen (note the empty shoe) remain unchanged today.