The Origin of the Baker’s Dozen – A Beverwyck Christmas Fable

The first published version of this fable appeared in 1836, written by James Paulding, a close friend of Washington Irving*, in his “Book of St. Nicholas”. Paulding was born in Nine Partners (Pine Plains) in Duchess County and it is quite likely this fable had been passed on through oral tradition.

In Paulding’s story the baker lives in New Amsterdam – but over the years a number of versions surfaced, most based in Beverwyck (the name for Albany in the mid part of the 1600s).

This version appeared in the “Times Union” in 1940, written by Edgar Van Olinda, who wrote the paper’s old Albany history columns in the mid-20th century.

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In 1655 on Christmas Eve, so the rumor has it, the phrase, “Baker’s Dozen” made its first appearance in the vocabulary of Beverwyck among the tradesmen.

There was a Beverwyck baker who kept a little shop just off Jonker St. (State St.) .The baker’s name was Volkert Jan Pietersen Van Amsterdam, called for brevity Baas.

The gentleman in question had established quite a reputation for New Year’s cookies, which he sold up and down the Hudson River in settlements that could boast one Dutch family. Now Baas had been working hard all day and no one could begrudge him a little nip of rum to speed up production. And next week started a New Year and he probably has made some good resolutions. We mention this little deviation from the straight line not in the spirt of criticism, but to prove he was wide awake and that the following curious incident really happened.

As business dwindled down almost to the vanishing point and he was about to close up his shop, there was a knock on the door, and going to see what was abroad at that unseemly time of night, he beheld an ugly old woman who demanded a dozen New Year’s cookies; specifying each must be in the effigy of good St. Nicholas. Carefully counting out 12 of the delicacies and placing them in a bag, he was astounded when she demanded an extra one.

“I want a dozen,” was her insistent demand. Baas was just as insistent as she.

“I gave you a dozen” said Bass. “I counted them very carefully – 12 of my finest cookies.”

“One more cookie”, said the old woman “One more than 12 makes a dozen.”

The argument threatened to go on until daybreak, with neither party to the purchase willing to give ground. Finally his temper riled beyond the point of any verbal settlement on the question he grabbed her by the shoulders (however, not before he had received copper coins in payment) and pushed her out into the night.

“You can go to the devil for another cookie”, he shouted.

“You won’t get another” and shut the door in her face.

When he related the story to his wife, the kindly spirit suggested that as it was on the eve of Christmas, he might have made an exception, but by then it was too late to relent. The old woman had vanished into the night.

From that time on the business began to fall off and sundry mysterious things began to happen to his products. The dough raised to the ceiling and then fell flat as a pancake. Even the baker’s wife became afflicted with deafness. On three subsequent occasions the old woman appeared at the shop and demanded her 13th cookie.

Three times she was refused, and in desperation he exclaimed,

“Holy St. Nicholas, what shall I do?”

At that instant the venerable St. Nicholas entered the shop and asked what is was that perplexed old man and complimenting him the excellence of his likeness in the cakes he said:

“The trouble with you is that you have not absorbed the Christmas spirit. Favor the old woman. Give her what she demands and your troubles will vanish into thin air.”
And so saying he disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

At that instant there appeared the old lady, again demanding her extra cookie, and Baas was all thumbs getting the extra cookie into her bag, which he handed her and added a cheery “Merry Christmas”.

“The spell is broken,” said the witch, for that is what she was. “Now swear to me on St. Nicholas that here in Beverwyck and all the Van Rensselaer Patroonship, 13 will make a baker’s dozen.

Baas took the oath, and that is why today in every good bakery, the baker hands you an extra sample of her wares – or does she?

*Paulding and Irving were founding members of The Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York, established to commemorate the history and heritage of New York. Notably, the first meeting was a dinner held in 1835, the year before Paulding published this story. To the members of the Society, New York’s Dutch heritage was in danger of being lost and its preservation was one of the goals of the Society.

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