If you were living in colonial Albany today in the early 1700s you and your family would probably be preparing for the arrival of St. Nicholas on December 6th.
St. Nicholas was a real person – a 4th century bishop who lived in what’s now Turkey. He provided for the poor and the sick, and became the patron saint of children (he’s also the patron saint of pawnbrokers – go figure). He was much admired and loved throughout Europe.
Over time the legend of St. Nicholas grew and his religious feast day became a celebration that extended beyond the church walls and incorporated regional pagan myths. Each country (and regions within countries) developed their own St. Nicholas traditions, but there are 2 commonalities – St. Nicholas arriving the night before before his feast day, leaving presents for the children (usually left in their shoes) and the women of the house in a baking frenzy- special treats for this festive and special day.
In some areas St. Nicholas arrived by boat from Spain (much of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany was under Spanish rule in the 16th and 17th centuries). In other mostly Germanic regions he flies on a white horse; in some places he comes into town riding a horse or walking beside a donkey carrying a load of gifts. Scandinavians had mythical little creatures “tomte” or “nisse” (suspiciously like elves) that assisted with December festivities. (And in pagan tradition, there’s often a creature called a Krampus – part Devil/part goat – that punishes bad children and sometimes leaves coal instead of gifts.)
There’s no documentation of exactly how the Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated in colonial Albany (although cookbooks yield some interesting info), but there is historical documentation for the same time period for the countries from which the citizens of Albany emigrated. Some scholars think the people who came here abandoned their traditions in the New World. We know that in the earliest days of the New Netherlands Colony, Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor, was quite straight laced and adhered to his own sense of the Dutch Reformed dogma – basically old peg leg was a bit of a religious fanatic. But after the early 1670s, when the colony was finally in the hands of the British, people were free to celebrate as they wished (more or less).
So we theorize the traditions would have been more important for people so far from “home”, but what did happen was probably a mixing of cultural traditions. There were Germans, Scots, Swedes, and Walloons and Huguenots (French Protestants), English and Norwegians. They lived next to one another and they intermarried * and traditions melded as cultures blended.
But Albany was still predominantly Dutch in the early 1700s. So most of the children would be waiting for “Sinterklaas” (the Dutch name for St. Nicholas) on St. Nicholas eve called “Sinterklaasavond”. Then all the children, giddy with excitement, would put out their wooden shoes (wooden shoes, except for the very rich – were a cultural thing in most of western Europe and Scandinavia – sabots among the French, clogs in the Norse countries land, klomp and Klompen among the Dutch and Germans.
The toys would be homemade in anticipation of just this night – wood or cornhusk dolls, tops, hockey sticks, whistles, stick horses, ninepin and balls, ice skates – lovingly crafted by parents. In addition to the toys, there would sweets and chocolate and maybe a coin. And probably an orange – the global trade of the Dutch had made exotic fruits like oranges high prized special delicacies (orange is the color of the Royal Dutch family – the House of Orange). An old Dutch poem about St. Nicholas even mentions oranges specifically.
“Saint Nicholas, good holy man!
Put on the Tabard, best you can,
Go, therewith, to Amsterdam,
From Amsterdam to Spain,
Where apples bright of Orange,
And likewise those granate surnam’d,
Roll through the streets, all free unclaim’d”
The women of the families in each ethnic group would bake their specialties. For the Dutch that meant a cookie call a Speculaas – a highly spiced shortbread (it’s still probably the national cookie of the Netherlands), crunchy little cookies called Kruidnuten (sometimes called Ginger Nuts – mini-speculaas)** and Peppernoten (Pepper Nuts) – small, chewy and also made with exotic spices. The lucrative East Indies spice trade had a dramatic impact on Dutch (and other European baking and cooking) and used spices that could only come from Southeast Asia in the “Spice islands”. The cookies would be rolled and dough placed in special forms.***The forms were usually made of wood, intricately carved and passed down through generations.
Fast running sloops would bring the spices, sugar, cacao, molasses and oranges up the Hudson to Albany to the docks about where Madison Ave. meets Quay St. today. They would have been off-loaded from larger ships in New York harbor, bringing the cargo from Asia, the British and Dutch Islands in the Caribbean and the colonies of British Honduras (now Belize) and Surinam, which was owned by the Dutch, in Central America.
German women would have made Stutenkerl (also called Nikolaus) – sweetened dough shaped into the form of St. Nicholas (with the Reformation, the dough men looked less bishop- like). And Scandinavian women would have made Pepparkakor – crisp ginger cookies cut in shapes of stars and hearts.
(I’m of the opinion that a German Haufrau was visiting a Swedish Hemmafrau and decided she would make a ginger cookie St. Nicholas (or visa versa) and that was the origin of the gingerbread man.)
Meanwhile Brits and the Scots brought little to the table. The religious wars in Scotland and England for over a century ended with a Protestant ban on saint day celebrations. And Christmas (save for a church service) was a no no. Except for religious services, Holiday traditions had taken a huge nose dive. So, they took to it like duck to water and by the early 1770s Sinterklaas is now Santa Claus and associated with Christmas.
As you’ve been reading along you can see how the Feast of St. Nicholas evolved into American Christmas, but that’s a whole other story we’ll save for another time.
*My Dutch 10th great grandmother married an English soldier and her daughter married a Swede (by way of Holland) who was a ship captain – all within 40 years of the family settling in New Netherlands in the 1650s. And my Walloon ancestors quickly married Germans and Dutch.
** Ginger nuts are still featured in Albany bakery ads of the 1850s.
***Speculaas are still made (in the Nertherlands you buy a Speculaas spice mix – rather than the individual spices) and the windmill cookies you like are actually speculaas.