One Dutch legend grew up around the Oranje village baker who lived and ran his bakery on Pearl Street. It was this baker, Wouter Albertz vanden Uythoff commonly called Baas (Boss), who first baked the St. Nicholas cookie that so excited the children. Wouter Albertz vanden Uythoff used a cookie cutter to cut the images of St. Nicholas so only he could make the familiar cake.
Baas was Dutch from his big feet to his round bald head. Everything that was Dutch was right and everything else was wrong and that was all there was to it. He prided himself on his work, convinced that he was the best baker to ever live, and he probably wasn’t too far wrong. Everything he made was excellent and very decorative. Everyone wanted his cakes and cookies.
He was a very devoted member of Oranje’s Dutch Church and always attended services, but like most early Dutchmen he was very superstitious. If he spilled salt, he was always careful to throw a pinch over his shoulder.
He was very economical and would not spend anything if he could avoid it. He dealt in Indian sewant, as did all residents of Oranje. He was quick to take it but slow to part with it. His wife was said to be very much like Baas except much more economical and even less likely to part with anything. It was rumored that she wouldn’t even part with her toenails expecting to eventually find a good use for them.
Baas and his wife noticed that they sold more and more St. Nicholas cookies every year. Even if they cut back in expensive ingredients or cut back in decorations, the cookies still sold more than last year. The children couldn’t be without them; they were a big part of the holiday. Not to buy St. Nicholas cookies just because they no longer tasted as good or looked as well decorated as in the past was impossible. Any child who did not wake to St. Nicholas cookies in his or her stocking would be grievously disappointed.
One St. Nicholas Eve an old woman dressed in a shawl and with a cane came into Baas’ bakery. Baas thought she was the ugliest woman he had ever seen.
“I want a dozen St. Nicholas cookies,” she shouted.
“Vel, den, you needn’t sbeak so loud,” replied Baas “I ain’t teaf, den.”
Counting out 12 St. Nicholas cookies, Baas wrapped them in brown paper, tied them with string, and handed them to her.
She unwrapped the package to inspect the cookies and screamed: “These are not real St. Nicholas cookies. These are not nearly as well decorated as in the past. You have cut back in the best ingredients. You stingy old man, you are cheating me!”
“Vel, den,” said the baker, “you may go to the duyvel.”
The old lady pointed her long and crooked finger at Baas and said, “You are a cheap and stingy man and you can keep your St. Nicholas cookies!”
The old lady threw down the St. Nicholas cookies and stomped out of the store. At the door she hesitated and turned and said; “I have been generous in letting you use me for your benefit, but that will not continue! What you have gained from me will be taken away until you deserve it!” This was a complete mystery to Baas since he had never seen the woman before in his life and hoped to never see her again.
From this time on, the baker and his wife were made miserable by unseen hands. His sewant disappeared during the night. Cookies and cakes disappeared; bread either rose out of site or sank into the earth. Their famous huge brick oven cracked and crumbled, the falling bricks landing on Baas. Worst of all, his St. Nicholas cookies turned to stone, they could not be eaten without breaking a tooth. No one wanted them; even the Indians wouldn’t buy them. The Dutch of Beverwyck started a new tradition of making fruit cakes to replace St. Nicholas cookies.
Three times on three consecutive St. Nicholas Eves the same old lady came in to Baas’ bakery, each time demanding a dozen St. Nicholas cookies and each time Baas told her to go to the “duyvel.” Each year his luck grew worse until he was nearly destitute.
Finally Baas was panicked. St. Nicholas Eve was approaching, and, if his St. Nicholas cookies failed him again this year, he would be out of business. He no longer thought his luck would change on its own; he felt he needed help. He went to the Dutch Church in the middle of Handelaers and Yonkers Streets and there he prayed to the Dutch St. Nicholas.
Suddenly St. Nicholas appeared before him. When he explained his plight, the kindly saint told him that he needed to be more generous and if he gave more, he would receive more good fortune. St. Nicholas told him to start with the old woman. St. Nicholas suggested giving her an extra cookie whenever she ordered a dozen.
Baas was thinking in his head that “St. Nicholas is a plockhead …” when suddenly St. Nicholas vanished and the old woman stood before him. She demanded a dozen St. Nicholas cookies.
Baas, remembering what St. Nicholas had told him, gave her 13 cookies while only charging her the normal price for a dozen of 12. She took the cookies and turned to him and said “The spell is broken!” Baas felt as if a large weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He knew that good times had returned and he would again be prosperous.
He chased after the old woman who had gone out the door, closing it behind her. When he threw it open, he saw St. Nicholas standing in front of the door and no one else on the street. St. Nicholas turned to Baas and said; “Baas, as long as you use my image to sell your cookies, you must give every customer an extra measure. You must use the best ingredients and decorations. You shall not skimp on anything. A dozen St. Nicholas cakes will always be 13 otherwise there will be dire consequences.”
The good saint went on to tell Baas that from now on if he is generous and always gives more, always gives 13 for 12, he will always prosper.
Baas learned his lesson and also learned that when he increased the quality and quantity of his baked goods, his sales went through the roof. The better he made his goods, the more the demand multiplied. He was soon very prosperous and always had lines outside his bakery. The Dutch, French, English and Indians all lined up with their sewant to buy his cookies.
The story of his prosperity grew and soon was spread throughout the colonies. Every baker wanted to know why Baas was so successful. He refused to divulge his baking secrets but they could all see that he always gave 13 for a dozen. Soon every baker in the colonies was giving 13 for a dozen, and this is how it came to be that 13 … is a Baker’s Dozen.
The earliest existing written document mentioning Sinter Klaas in America is a receipt in 1675 to Maria Van Cortland Van Rensselaer paying f 2-10 to baker Wouter Albertz vanden Uythoff for some Sinterklaasgoet, meaning Santa Claus “things” or “stuff.” What Santa Claus things would you purchase in a BAKERY ?
The receipt contains no numbers but if the receipt was for 12 then the Bakers Dozen Fable had not yet started. If it was for 13 then the Albany Tradition had already begun.
But there is another possibility: “maybe it was that day.”
Since we know that Wouter Albertz vanden Uythoff really existed, and he is really Baas, and since we know that Maria Van Rensselaer’s husband, Jeremias Van Rensselaer, the Patroon, had died within a year (1674) she would have been all dressed in black. Also, Maria was known to have a short temper and walk with a cane, could this receipt be the day the fable began ? Is Maria Van Rensselaer the ugly old woman ?
Edited from an account printed in the 1800s in Harper’s Magazine rumored to be authored by a descendent of the Gansevoort family who also numbered Van Rensselaers and Schuylers among his ancestors.
Illustration: Baas throwing the Old Lady out of his bakery, courtesy Harper’s Magazine.