Pepernoten (“pepper nuts”) are little, brown spice cookies that are popular before and during the Dutch holiday Sinterklaasavond, or Saint Nicholas’s Eve. Sinterklaasavond occurs on the night of December 5 when the patron saint of children, Sinterklaas (from whom the North American Santa Claus evolved), distributes presents and sweet treats across the country.
During the day on December 5, a Sinterklaas figure parades through towns carrying a burlap sack filled with presents, candy, and the crunchy cookies. Children clamor around as he and his helper, Zwarte Piet, scatter pepernoten and candy by the handful. Today, the black-painted Zwarte Piet (translated as “Black Pete”) spikes healthy debates among citizens concerned about his connection to racial oppression and colonial domination, though he remains a beloved purveyor of pepernoten and a “reservoir of nostalgia” to many.
The December 5 celebrations continue into the evening when children are home. Often, after hearing a knock on the door, they’ll rush toward the sound and arrive just in time to see a black-gloved hand toss cookies inside. Usually a sack of presents will also be left behind.
Light and crunchy, pepernoten start to fill supermarket shelves as early as the end of October and find their way into store displays throughout November as the holiday approaches. Occasionally served at markets by the scoop, pepernoten are spiced with some combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and anise. According to some accounts, the small round pepernoten represent coins and the practice of throwing them dates back to an old legend in which St. Nicholas saved three poor women from prostitution by throwing them golden coins, enabling them to afford a dowry and therefore marry honorably. Today, however, children happily gather the symbolic pepernoten off the street, popping them into their mouths on the unique day when it becomes socially acceptable to eat food plucked from the pavement.
Need to Know
Sometimes Sinterklaas and Piet throw another kind of spiced cookie known as kruidnoten.