Sinterklaas and Pfeffernusse

“Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, Lean your ear this way

Don’t you tell a single soul what I’m going to say

Christmas Eve will soon be here, Now you dear old man,

Whisper what you’ll bring to me, Tell me if you can”—Emily Huntington Miller

2017-12-05 18.04.47

My favorite holiday, besides my birthday and Halloween, is Christmas! No matter what your belief system is, I think we can all agree that it is a marvelous, brightly lit, and the warmest and fuzziest time of the year. No Scrooges or Grinches allowed unless you are prepared to change your tune. Step away from the Christmas lists and the tree hunting and the commercial madness for half a minute. Have a drink (it doesn’t have to be alcohol), eat some pfeffernüsse, and sit back and enjoy the twinkle lights!

Today is December 6th. It’s Saint Nicholas Day! Who is Saint Nicholas? Well, you might know him better as the round, bearded, twinkly-eyed man in a red suit who drives a flying sled pulled by reindeer–known nowadays as Santa Claus!

In many Germanic countries, children will leave their shoes out on the eve before December 6th, and awake the next morning to find them filled with candies, cookies, pieces of fruit like tangerines and oranges, and small toys! This is not to be confused with the tradition of filling stockings. That is La Befana, the Good Witch of Italy, and she comes by on the Epiphany, January 6th. But more on that at a later time.

The tradition of Santa Claus was brought to the New World by settlers from the Netherlands. Sinterklaas, as he is still known by to this day, gets his origins from Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, gift-giving, and sailors. St. Nicholas was a real person back during the “Great Persecution”–Rome’s crack-down on Christians during a time when pagans and newly formed Christians were having at each other. Nicholas was imprisoned for many years for refusing to renounce his beliefs, but was released and then later made the Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. The saint is widely known for his generosity, particularly towards the poor and downtrodden.

We owe quite a number of our American Christmas traditions to these Germanic ones: Christmas trees, gingerbread, Advent calendars. Ever try the pickle game? In Germany on Christmas Eve, the adults decorate the tree and hide an ornament in the shape of a pickle in the tree somewhere. Then the kids come in and search for the ornament. The first one to find it wins a prize! My family went as far as to buy a pickle ornament, but alas we always ended up forgetting about it. I never liked pickles anyway. Too salty!

One Christmas food tradition that was introduced by German and Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania is pfeffernüsse. Say it with me: feffernoose. Think of it as a sibling of gingerbread. This spicy, nut-shape cookie is baked prior to December 6th to be enjoyed the day of and throughout the Christmas season.

Also known as pepernoten, little is known about the origins of the pfeffernüsse cookies. It was particularly popular amongst the Mennonite communities of Pennsylvania Dutch country where many refugees of the Reformation established themselves. Because the English Puritanical settlers didn’t celebrate Christmas (they considered it too pagan, given that it fell close to the Winter Solstice celebrations of old, and there were too much drinking and frivolity happening for their somber attitudes), the German and Dutch communities kept to their own customs of the season. Pfeffernüsse cookies are still baked during the Christmas season in these communities as one of the treats served throughout the holiday, but particularly of December 6th.

I had never made pfeffernüsse before, and I got the idea from something I was reading at work. Someone had sent an email requesting pfeffernüsse cookies, and I had no idea what it was. So of course, I had to try it out!

There are several variations of this cookie. They are very similar to Russian Tea Cookies and gingerbread. The recipe I found that seemed more traditional in flavor called for margarine and shortening–neither of which I used. I simply doubled the amount of butter instead. I would have used lard as well (my new best baking friend!), but I will be sharing these with my co-workers, and I have friends who do not partake of porcine products.

Not only are these cookies tasty, but they’re full of antioxidants! Cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg are jam-packed with them, and cloves and ginger have their own vitamin arsenal. If you want to boost your immune system this season, eat these cookies! How can you pass that up? They go lovely together with hot cocoa!


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