Why Dutch People Give Chocolate Letters

by | Nov 18, 2015 | Food History | 62 comments

Still Life with Letter Pastries by Peter Binoit, c. 1615 Museum Amstelkring on loan from the Groninger Museum. Photo: C Myers

Why do Dutch people give chocolate letters? When we receive our initial on “Pakjesavond” December 5 or at Christmas most of us just eat the delicious chocolate without wondering why this unique tradition is still practiced. The history of receiving a “letter” dates back centuries but originally letters were made of pastry. This is why almond pastry rings are still called “banket letter” by some people. I still remember my mother receiving a banket “C” for her birthday from a friend who was an excellent baker. In the days before gift wrapping, parents would spread a bed sheet over the gifts for “Sinterklaas”. They would then mark the place of each child’s gift with the child’s initial. Still life paintings of old Dutch masters from the 16th & 17th centuries show these pastry initials.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Dutch chocolate industry began to make letters in chocolate. The shift to chocolate letters was quick and enthusiastic. During World War II, supply shortages meant no chocolate letters but even then letters were made of gingerbread. Once rationing ended chocolate letter manufacturing was quick to resume.

For the Dutch emigres and us, their descendants, the tradition provides a strong connection to our roots. Opas and Omas of large families can give a personalized gift to each grandchild…there is something very special about getting one’s own letter. Of course, the children who got a M or a W always thought they got more chocolate than the poor child whose name started with I. But an I for Ingrid was still better than not getting your letter if your name started with a Q, X, Y or Z. Today, however, all the letters of the alphabet are available…for a limited time, of course. We have already bagged up about 170 pre-orders for our customers on our Chocolate Letter Registry but there are still lots of letters to pick from!

Here at The European Pantry where we have customers that reflect a wide variety of heritages, we find that the idea of giving a letter is catching on with the non-Dutch customer, too. It is such a simple way to give a small personalized thank you to a hair dresser or delivery person. They also can be used as an innovative way to mark place settings at a holiday gathering. Other people use them in the historical way as name tags for gifts.

The chocolate that our letters are made of is all UTZ certified to guarantee ethical production conditions for the chocolate bean farmers and their families. Learn more about UTZ certifications here.

Image Credit: Still Life with Letter Pastries by Peter Binoit – Link Here

62 Comments

  1. myrna

    i had no idea..thanx for this info..i have given my 4 kids every year a chocolate letter and now i give my grandkids a letter

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      You are quite welcome, Myrna! It is fascinating how our family traditions often have deeper cultural roots. Have a wonderful Christmas with your kids and grandkids!

      Reply
  2. Fernando Gonzalez

    i even have our friends buing them,i do this every year,the kid’s and the grand kid’s love it.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      It’s a tradition that thrills people from many backgrounds.

      Reply
  3. Emmy

    Always give one to our children and grand children!

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      I bet they look forward to it to. It’s more than just getting chocolate…there is something special about someone taking the time to get your name!

      Reply
  4. Marlene Greene

    My mother was dutch and I received this every xmas for many years growing up

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      Brings back fond memories for lots of us!

      Reply
  5. Dirk Jol

    Where are you situated???

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      Hi Dirk, We are situated in Welland, the middle of the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario Canada. We are 15-20 minutes from Niagara Falls or St. Catharines. There is a map on our location page or you can google: 30 Avenue Place, Welland, ON L3B 4B1. Thanks for your inquiry!

      Reply
  6. Amy van Dokkumburg

    Just bought over 20 letters😊

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      It’s a great way to give a little thank you to people who we have meaningful interaction with through out the year without placing an obligation for a return gift!

      Reply
  7. JACKIE

    My mother who has now passed always bought her children and grandchildren a chocolate letter, so when she passed we stopped for one year, my son who is grown commented where are the chocolate letters, so now the tradition is carried on.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      We often hear stories from customers who stop doing it because they think their family doesn’t care about the tradition any more….it only takes one year and they are set right! Traditions provide a link to our past and memories. I am sure that each year those chocolate letters bring back fond memories of you mother.

      Reply
  8. Jennifer van der Heyden

    As children we had a large parcel was sent from Holland to us in New Zealand it always had chocolate letters in it we loved it.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      My parents immigrated to Canada with their entire families. My best friend’s grandparents still lived in The Netherlands and they always got a parcel from Holland each year. I used to be so jealous of the that. Maybe that is why I am in this business because I get parcels from Holland all year long!

      Reply
  9. Johanna Andriesse

    I have always put the letters in my kids- and now their spouses and grandkids -in their wooden shoes on the 5th of December. They are all painted by them and we place them under family Christmas tree instead of the stocking. We live in Canada.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      When my parents-in-law went to The Netherlands in the early 90’s they took tracings of each of our children’s feet and brought back wooden shoes for them to Canada. We started the same tradition as you at that time. Now my daughter has done the same thing with her children.

      Reply
      • Delia Persenaire

        they could have gone to Holland, Michigan and bought them there at the Wooden Shoe factory or at the Dutch Village. Much closer !

        Reply
  10. Paula Langelaan

    I loved this article. My fathers family is from The Netherlands and we have always received chocolate letters on Christmas. He passed away this year, but I will continue this tradition with my children on behalf of Opa.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      Thank you for sharing Paula! Your continuing the tradition will give your children a special link to their memories of Opa.

      Reply
  11. Cathy Allan

    Hello Jacquie, I saw this post on a Facebook link and was very surprised to see that you are from Welland. My sister and brother-in-law introduced me to this tradition years ago (He is of Dutch decent). I’m wondering (a) do you ship to Nova Scotia where they now live, and (b) do you make the letter ‘Z’. If so,I would like to come to your store to place an order. Would it be wise for me to place an order before coming? What are the costs of each letter? I am from Niagara Falls. Thanks for your reply.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      Hi Cathy! Yesterday I shipped an order to BC so Nova Scotia isn’t a problem. Our letters are imported from The Netherlands. Z’s are available. WE order our letters in the spring but due to a store that had ordered but closed our wholesaler still has lots of letters and has been very good about sending us extra. However, because they are delivering Monday it would be good to place your order as soon as possible. If I am short any letters then I can still add them to Monday’s order. We are just 15 minutes from Niagara Square so very convenient to the Falls if you wish to come by. But you can place your order here first too if you wish. Because we are next to the Welland Farmer’s Market we open early at 7 am on Saturdays.

      Reply
  12. Kitty

    A banketletter still exists here in the Netherlands. It is usually an S for Sinterklaas.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      I love the banketletter….we sell staven (sticks) made in The Netherlands each year. We also have sticks and rings made by a Dutch Bakery here in Ontario, Canada. Still very popular among our customers of Dutch heritage and our other customers love the pastry, too, once they try it!

      Reply
  13. Janet de Vries

    This will be my first Christ,as without my letter. Thinking of you mama.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      I hope you will be surrounded by special memories of your mother even if you do not get a letter this Christmas.

      Reply
  14. Kees Lintermans

    Wat leuk om te lezen. Ik ben in Nederland geboren en getogen, vier (zoals iedereen hier) ieder jaar Sinterklaas, heb er zelfs een kinderboek over geschreven. Maar dit verhaal over de letters was helemaal nieuw voor mij. Dus bedankt !!!

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      Bedankt Kees! Wij wenzen uw en vrooilijk Sint Feest en prettige Keerstdagen!

      Reply
  15. Kim noel

    Can never find an ‘X’ for our son Xander

    Reply
  16. Kim

    Please tell me where I can find an X for my son. Thank you

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      DeHeer the brand that we sell, makes X’s….we are on the other side of the coin and never can find enough people with a name that starts in X. So we always have X’s leftover. If you live in Canada I can mail one to you!

      Reply
      • Kim noel

        I’m in McGregor by Windsor ontario

        Reply
        • jacquieisen

          If you would like to call our store this week…it will be easy to mail one to you. Otherwise you can call the Schinkels Meat market/Dutch store in Essex and ask if they sell DeHeer letters and have an X left. http://schinkels.com/products/ If it is easier to have one mailed..our letters are 1.79 and it would cost about $2-3 to mail I would estimate. Our number is 905-732-3222 …Jacqui

          Reply
  17. Stacie Kostecki

    I LOVE getting my letter every year from my Nana and Opa(came here from Holland during WWll when he was a child). It’s probably my favourite gift. When they are gone, I will definitely continue the tradition, as I know it’s something my family loves and treasures! Chocolate letters are even given to the little ones who are too little to eat the chocolate(so parents get extra haha!) It’s an amazing tradition. My mom also loves de ruijter(or chocolate mousies as she calls them!). 🙂

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      The “pre-chocolate eaters” also get letters in our family as well as in many of the families we serve. We often get last minute phone calls asking us to put in an extra letter for a baby born just before Christmas. We enjoy hearing about the various family holiday traditions…not just from our Dutch customers but also from our customers of other heritages like Hungarian, German, Polish, Ukrainian, etc. Enjoy your family celebrations Stacie. By the way we are very close to you here in Welland by the Farmer’s Market!

      Reply
      • Stacie Kostecki

        Do you have an actual shop that people can come visit and browse/look around? If so, I might need to convince my mom to take a drive sometime and come visit! 🙂

        Reply
        • jacquieisen

          Hi Stacie, Yes, we do have a store! We have been in our current location for 12 year…. next to the Farmer’s Market downtown Welland. It’s like a bit of Niagara on the Lake but with Welland prices! Be sure to introduce yourself if come.

          Reply
  18. Ylva Groeneveld Raal

    I live in South Africa and my grandmother in Limburg Netherlands. She passed away in 2001. When I was a little girl she sent us our letters. It was so amazing. It really meant alot to me as a little girl. I have 2 children aswell and would love to go on with this wonderful tradition. Where in South Africa can I buy them? (Maybe somebody imports them)?

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      Hy Ylva! I reached out to a cousin on my husband who lives in SA to see if she knows of any Dutch import stores in your country. I haven’t heard back from her yet but will let you know if she has any helpful info. However, I did find a link to an SA Dutch Expat website. You might wish to join that and see if any of the members can point you in the direction of a store. Here is the link: https://www.internations.org/south-africa-expats/dutch Good luck!

      Reply
  19. Brenda Wieringa

    My parents came to Canada in 1952. When I was a kid my Oma and Opa sent them from Holland until they passed. From then on my parents continued and gave them to us kids and then to the grand kids. Now they have passed on so I give them to my grand kids and have carried it on to my new husbands nieces. They love it even though they are not from a Dutch background.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      The giving of chocolate letters holds many memories for lots of us.

      Reply
  20. Brenda Wieringa

    Does anyone know who the artist is in the painting of the letters?

    Reply
  21. Piet Pnning

    You mention that the m and w are to be thought as heavier, but than forget that in Holland ALL letters are of the same weight.very nice to hear our tradition is still going Strong in Canada.

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      Yes, the tradition is still going strong in Canada…In the eyes of a child those W’s and M’s look bigger but I think all the adults know that the weight is the same in all letters. However, I actually had a customer years ago insisted in buying only M’s and W’s not because he thought they were bigger but because they broke into pieces easier and were more “verdelig”.

      Reply
  22. Uncle Ben

    I’m glad so many people are enjoying the tradition. I was very happy at being able to pre-order the letters I needed for Christmas. Now I know I can always get the letters I need; and in dark chocolate too, an added bonus 🙂 See you this morning for some double-salted licorice.

    Reply
  23. Jennie

    That’s amazing! I didn’t know there was a story behind it I just gave them to my kids every year for the last 28 years and now I get it for my granddaughter.

    Reply
  24. Lydia Munson

    When do the letters become available?
    I visit Thanks Giving from the States.
    Planning for next year

    Reply
  25. Lydia Munson

    When do the letters become available?
    I visit Thanks Giving from the States.
    Also do you have pepernoten, tiepopen and hagelsligh??
    Planning for next year

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      We usually receive our letters at the beginning of October. We have already packaged up over 175 orders. Our customers have the opportunity to file their letter orders in our database. We then contact them at the beginning of the season. If they wish to reorder we set their letters aside for them to pick up closer to Sinterklas or Christmas. And yes we carry pepernoten, taai taai kleuter poppen and hagelslag!

      Reply
  26. Kala

    Hi,
    How do I order letters? And how much do you charge for shipping 4 letters to BC?

    Thanks,
    Kala

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      If you wish to order letters you can private message us at [email protected]
      I can give you the shipping cost once I know the postal code I would be sending it to. But you can figure on about $15.
      We do not use pay pal…you can do an e-transfer or do a credit card payment over the phone.

      Reply
  27. Yvonne

    My mother is from Amsterdam and moved to Canada with her family when she was 12! Our family has always received our chocolate letters from our Nana and now my mom has kept this tradition alive for over 40 years giving all the kids, nieces, nephews, and now grandchild these wonderful treats after Nana passed away! I will keep the tradition going long after that as well!!! Cherished memories for sure

    Reply
  28. Leanne Reid

    Cool l always wondered.

    Reply
  29. A. Bon

    Thanks! I’am Dutch and I’ve never known this. The tradition is strong, indeed. My mother gives them every year.

    Reply
  30. Stephen Vandenbrink

    When My husband’s Parents were alive we exchanged gifts with all the adults (drawing names ) and one requirement was to include a choc. letter along with the gift…..Now we just do the kids under twelve but yesterday (DEC 3rd) I noticed that there too there were chocolate letters on some of the kids’ gifts…traditions carry on…This will be 3rd and 4th generation out of Holland and this year the adults put the money usually spent on gifts in an envelope and will buy 9 goats for the poor in a 3rd world country….another tradition we hope will carry on….Have a Blessed Christmas….Karen

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      What a lovely heritage you are giving your children! The newer tradition of blessing those less fortunate than us during the advent season is definitely in the spirit of St. Nicolas. If you would like to share the history of that generous saint with your family check out this article we posted a few years ago: https://theeuropeanpantry.com/2014/11/

      Reply
  31. Ingrid Broekman

    As a child I always received a chocolate Letter ‘I’ and I’ve continued that tradition, making sure my brother, his wife, our children and grandchildren all receive one every year. Funny, but I just realized I don’t buy myself one. Thank you for sharing the history behind the tradition.
    Ingrid

    Reply
    • jacquieisen

      You are welcome Ingrid! Don’t the stories behind the traditions make them all the more special?!

      Reply
    • jacquieisen

      It is interesting how often “Mom” skips herself!

      Reply

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