Yes, Virginia, there really was a Santa Claus: how cookies saved St. Nick.


Have you ever paused to wonder why so many Dutch people celebrate St. Nicholas Day? The American version of Sinterklaas, Santa Claus is a jolly, generous soul, sufficiently non-sectarian to be acceptable to the majority of North Americans. But Sinterklaas arrives every year in The Netherlands dressed in the full regalia of a Catholic bishop. That might not seem surprising today; the Dutch are known to be tolerant and half of them who associate themselves with Christianity today are Catholic anyway. So what is so amazing about the popularity of an old man dressed in the garb of a Catholic Bishop who spreads good cheer, cookies, candies and gifts? A few years ago I was given a book, Nicholas: The Epic Journey From Saint to Santa Claus by Jeremy Seal. The story he uncovered through years of meticulous research was quite fascinating.

St. Nicholas was a bishop in Myra, Asia Minor during the third and fourth centuries; what is now modern day Turkey. He began his path to sainthood through an anonymous act of charity. A prosperous man in the city of Patara, Nicholas’ birthplace, had fallen into hard financial straits. With no money for dowries, his three daughters faced uncertain futures. As his situation became more desperate, the father resolved to sell the oldest daughter into prostitution. During the dark of night Bishop Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins into the man’s window saving the girl from a life of abuse and slavery. The father’s finances, however, still did not improve and the second daughter was facing a similar dreadful fate. Once again a bag of gold coins came flying through the window. Finally, when the father, still impoverished, made plans for the youngest daughter, Nicholas came to the rescue again. However, this time the father pursued his mysterious benefactor and “unmasked” him. Nicholas requested a promise of secrecy. However, the “Tale of the Three Daughters” was too alluring and even today the story of generous gifts delivered secretly at night is told. Does that sound familiar….?

We do not know much of certainty about the life of Nicholas other than it was long and ended on December 6. We do know that he was not left to lay in peace. The bones of saints are valuable commodities as sources of mystical power and, therefore, also as attractions for pilgrim “tourists”. Depending on who tells the story, Nicholas’s remains were either stolen or removed from Myra to ensure their safety as the Turks began to encroach on Asia Minor at the beginning of the second millennium. In 1087, they were reinterred in Bari, Italy within the Basilica of St. Nicholas. If another chronicler is to be believed, the men of Bari were less than thorough in removing St. Nicholas’ remains. An expedition from Venice thirteen years later uncovered some left over remains. They were brought back to Venice and housed in the monastery connected to San Nicolò al Lido where they still are today. Even earlier, one of Nicholas’ fingers had been gifted to a church in Russia. Unfortunately, it was lost in the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution.

Through his own post mortum travels and those of his pilgrim followers, the generous reputation of St. Nicholas traveled far and wide. The feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated in Utrecht as early as 1163 and spread across much of northern and central Europe as well as east to Romania. Processions led by people dressed as St. Nicholas would travel through the towns. Groups of singing people would be welcomed into people’s homes. In other places, parents would give presents to their children on the eve of St. Nicholas all the while pretending that the saint himself had spirited the gifts through locked windows and doors. Most likely, as Seal says, this gift giving was inspired by plays about the lives of saints and Nicholas’ life in particular. By the 1500’s Nicholas had a faithful following and many churches had be named in his honour across Europe including The Netherlands.

In his book, “Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566” Rien Poortvliet recounts and illustrates the tumultuous times that arose. Holland was under the control of Philip, King of Spain. Any dissent from Catholicism was violently repressed. In addition, the Dutch people were enduring a sales tax of 10 percent, high prices and a shortage of food. The church which owned much land and enormous fortunes did little to ease the people’s plight. Instead it added to the people’s burden by requiring tithes and payment for the forgiveness of sins. History teaches us that whenever Christianity has lost its simple message and become politically institutionalized, trouble follows. In the Low Countries, Spain and the Catholic church were seen as wicked bedfellows. On August 10, 1566 the people rebelled beginning what has been called the Iconoclastic Movement. Four hundred churches and cloisters were attacked. Religious artifacts and images were desecrated and destroyed. In the aftermath, churches that were once named to honour saints were renamed “old” and “new”. Catholicism went underground. Nicholas’ church in Amsterdam also fell victim to these desperate times. His faithful followers would continue to meet secretly in a stocking maker’s house on Volburgerwaal. It wasn’t until1887 that a Church of St. Nicholas would be once again dedicated in Amsterdam and Catholic Christians could worship openly. A year later the church in the attic on Volburgerwaal was reopened as the Museum Amstelking  making it the second oldest museum in Amsterdam after the the Rijksmuseum.

How did St. Nicholas, by then known as Sinterklaas in the Low Countries, survive the upheaval of the Reformation to remain such a beloved figure in Dutch culture? Perhaps his reputation of generosity guarded him from being associated with the abuses of the church. Perhaps his feast day had just been too much fun. Whatever the reason, we do know that Sinterklaas flourished in secret.

Jan_Steen.Het_Sint_NicolaasfeestThe Feast of St. Nicholas” by Jan Steen circa 1665-1668. Oil on canvas in Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

While the people destroyed the images of the saints in the churches, Sinterklaas was safely hidden in their homes but not in the form of golden statues or painted icons. Since the thirteenth century bakers in the Low Countries had been making “taai taai” honey anise cookies in the saint’s image; complete with all the trappings of his bishopric. Numerous cities and towns passed ordinances outlawing the baking of cakes and cookies in the form of his image but Sinterklaas was not to be repressed. He was the people’s saint and they continued to honour his heritage of generosity. If you look carefully at Jan Steen’s painting, “The Feast of St. Nicholas” you will see a small girl holding a taai-taai cookie in the form of Sinterklaas near the back of the scene. Painted between 1665-68, a century after the Iconoclastic Movement, Steen documents that Sinterklaas was not forgotten but still faithfully remembered by the average person. As the authorities continued to try to outlaw him, his abilities to elude the authorities grew to epic magical proportions.

St. Nicholas’ heritage of gift giving has survived. However, it has lost its simplicity and anonymous intent. His iconic image has been replaced in much of the world by jolly old St. Nick. Even in The Netherlands, non-sectarian Santa is making inroads on his religious forefather. Perhaps, ironically, it might be the attack on Sinterklaas’ helper Zwarte Piet that might save Sinterklaas from a new iconoclasm…although Piet himself might need to become Roetpiet (Soot Pete) to survive. The Zwarte Piet controversy reminds us of the enduring value of iconic figures of simple generosity.

So this Christmas, take a close look at that taai-taai cookie before you sink your teeth into its anise honey goodness. Chances are it still has been baked in the shape of Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet. Give some thought to the story of “The Three Daughters” and St. Nicholas’ anonymous brand of “Love Thy Neighbour”. Take a break from the shopping mall, sit down and tell a child about a man centuries ago who saw his neighbour in distress and did something about it. Plan your own act of anonymous love. If we all band together, Sinterklaas will survive a few more centuries.

By Jacqui Eisen 2014
References: Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus by Jeremy Seal; Bloomsbury; New York; 2005 & Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566 by Rein Poortvliet; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York.

Farm sourced product

At the beginning of November I attended a food show sponsored by La Ferme.  They specialize in distributing meats and cheeses produced by farm families here in Canada and in Europe. The Plaisirs Gourmets booth offered a wide array of cheeses from Quebec, a number of which I hope to have available at our store very soon.  La Madelaine is especially exceptional…brie like in texture and creaminess but without the bloomy rind that some people don’t like. Marie-Chantal Houde on the right is the genius behind la Madelaine as well as Zacharie Cloutier and award winning ripened sheep’s cheese.          IMG_2836IMG_2835       On the meat end of the spectrum, I enjoyed sampling the offerings of Paganelli’s.  We already have been selling their wild boar cacciatore. Chef Paganelli explained how he makes his sausages without the use of artificial nitrates. I also sampled duck breast, tender and moist beyond belief and bison shaved thin and wrapped around a horseradish cream. But most exciting of all was the obvious commitment of these producers to ethical food production… that is, of course, the whole point of farm to plate. Thank you La Ferme for giving us opportunity of meeting the people who grow our food and the ability to choose food from ethical and healthy sources.


Jan Vermeer: making the Dutch proud


vermeer - milkmaid
EP logo

Even before I knew that my father walked the same streets in Delft as a child that Jan Vermeer had, or that my ancestors arrived in Delft around the time of Vermeer, I was captivated by his paintings. In particular “The Milkmaid” acted as an inspiration for the logo I created for our business.logo_with triangles and name

There has been much discussion and research into the question of how much technology Vermeer used in the creation of his paintings.  Scrupulously perfect in perspective, meticulous in detail, rich in colour and tones, Vermeer’s works set a standard that few artists can achieve. Therefore, the issue of whether he “cheated” to achieve his results is more than an esoteric question. It relates to almost every artist’s personal sense of ability.  The issue also pivots around the fundamental question of what is art.  People will ask me how I render a picture onto a canvas or paper: Do I use a projection device? Do I use a grid? I have been chagrined to discover that for many people any use of technology diminishes a piece of artwork in their minds.  The composition, interpretation and translation of line and colour are disregarded if any use of technology is admitted to.  For some even the use of a ruler or square offends their sense of artistic purity.

So back to Vermeer; I just finished watching the fascinating although rather geeky movie, Tim’s Vermeer.  If indeed Vermeer did use a camera obscura or lenses and mirrors to render his paintings, does that diminish his craft and ability?  Should those of us whose Dutch pride has been stirred by his paintings, slink off in shame because his painting are not what they seem? I would argue the contrary.  We live in an era of great dependence on technology.  Unlike Vermeer, I do not grind my own pigments and mix my paints.  I go to Michaels.  I don’t stretch my own canvases, although I would like to learn how.  I go to Michaels. I am not limited to working in natural light.  I can find images from all over the world with my finger on a touchpad and thereby benefit from the compositional eye of photographers I will never meet.  I blow up those images on my scanner or reduce them to pixels to analyze the underlying colours. Baring an artificial restriction to primitive materials, it is impossible to separate art and technology today.  In fact, technology has become our new paint brushes.

Vermeer painted in a golden age of discovery.  There was no dividing line between science and art. As he ground his pigments and mixed his paints, he acted as chemist as much as an artist.  If he used lenses and mirrors, as he probably did given the details in some of his paintings that would have been difficult to see with the naked eye, he wasn’t taking shortcuts.  Anyone who has knowledge of Vermeer knows how slowly he painted.  Rather he was experimenting with how to better convey an image on a canvas.  Vermeer predated the Impressionists and Pointelists. He knew nothing of pixels. He knew nothing of photographs.  Lifelike images were an unknown standard. Yet he understood that the artist’s application of dots and lines fools the viewer’s eye to see lifelike images  with light bouncing off the subjects. He upped the standard of what could be achieved by the application of paint on a canvas.

So proud of Vermeer?  We should be! Not just those of us whose families hail from Delft, not just  people of Dutch descent; not just Europeans. No, as fellow human beings in the pursuit of beauty, we can relate to Vermeer and be amazed at the human need to not only discover continents but to explore the smallest details of creation. We can marvel in the complexity of creation and that it takes all of humanity, including scientists and artists, to begin to fathom its beauty and communicate that to our fellow travelers.


We Eat What We Sell.


In a recent Globe and Mail article, “How foodies influence the things we eat” , author Susan Krashinsky describes taste testing at the Loblaws test kitchen in Brampton, Ontario. “…executive chef Dana Speers gestures to a stack of paper cups on the steel counter. “These are spit cups,” she says cheerily. “We use them all the time, so don’t feel like you’re offending us.”

The food industry is all about the latest new taste. The latest restaurant “hot spot” is at a new location every few weeks. Somewhere on the road to the new, we have lost appreciation for food that satisfies. Food is more than a sensation that glides over our tongues. It’s about gathering together; It’s about how food connects us with other people and cultures; It’s about the memories the food evokes; It’s about the satisfied feeling we are left with; And it’s about being reminded of how blessed we are.

So at The European Pantry, we do not apologize for offering food that has been around for centuries although we might present it in a new way.  And…we eat what we sell.