We’re entering the fifth month of the year and here at American Christmas, we’ve been thinking about one of the things we love most about Christmas and the holiday season: Christmas spirit.
To us, the spirit of the season embodies the very best of humanity. People smile at strangers and wish them well. We become a little more giving, a little more conscious of how lucky we are and we share some of our luck with others. We become more generous, and we learn to enjoy the wonders of both giving and receiving. And of course, Christmas is a magical time when just about anything is possible if only we believe.
Once the season ends, we rush headlong back into our busy lives, and sometimes we forget just how rewarding it is to keep the Christmas spirit alive and well outside the holiday season.
Today, we thought we’d remind you about the spirit of Christmas by sharing a tale you may not have heard. It is said to have come from Albany towards the end of the 1800s.
Van Amsterdam and the baker’s dozen
In Albany, New York, there lived a baker named Jan Pietersen Van Amsterdam. He had come to New York from The Netherlands and brought with him extraordinary recipes for cookies, cakes, breads, and delicacies that made him the most famous baker for miles around.
He used only the finest ingredients, and people knew he was honest, trusted him and loved his baked goods.
His busiest time of the year was December 5th, the day when the Dutch celebrate Saint Nicholas’ Day. On this day, Van Amsterdam baked special cookies in the shape of Saint Nicholas, infused with ginger and sugar, and iced in red and white to resemble the saint. Customers arrived at the bakery early and queued for hours to be able to buy his cookies for their celebrations.
In his 10th year of business, Van Amsterdam was startled by a loud rap at his door long before opening time. He went to the door, and there stood a wizened old woman. Before he could say, “We’re not open yet,” she held out a coin and demanded a dozen of his special cookies.
He shrugged, packed 12 cookies into a box and handed them over. The woman dropped the coin into his hand then opened the box and peered inside.
“But there are only 12 cookies here!” she said.
Surprised, Van Amsterdam nodded. “That’s right. A dozen is 12 and 12 is a dozen. That’s the way it is.”
“No!” The woman shook her head vigorously. “A dozen is 13. I want one more!”
But Van Amsterdam held his ground, and eventually, the woman marched off, shouting, “Van Amsterdam, you may be an honest man, but your heart is small. I tell you this: until you learn to give, your cakes and cookies and bread will fail you time and again.”
And with that, she was gone.
That day, business was brisk, but from then on, nothing seemed to go right. His doughs failed to rise. His cakes were tasteless. His cookies were too chewy or too hard or simply inedible. His customers dwindled and started buying goods from his competitors, and by the time the following Saint Nicolas’ Day approached, Van Amsterdam was a changed man. His wife had left him, his bakery was on the verge of bankruptcy and he’d never felt so miserable in his life.
On the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day, Van Amsterdam became so desperate that he called out to the saint himself for help. Imagine his surprise when Saint Nicholas appeared in front of him in his kitchen!
“What can I do?” pleaded Van Amsterdam, once he’d explained his encounter with the woman the year before. “How can I rid myself of this curse?”
The saint, dressed in his distinctive red and white robe, smiled.
“Van Amsterdam, perhaps it’s time to stop giving people what they expect and give a little more.”
With that, he smiled and disappeared.
Van Amsterdam pondered. It was true that he was an honest baker who always gave customers what they asked for, no more and no less. That was what he had done all his life. That was what he had done when the year before, he’d given the old woman no more and no less than what she’d ordered. But that hadn’t worked out well.
Van Amsterdam began to mix ingredients for his special Saint Nicholas’ Day cookies. His hands worked the dough, and he cut and baked and decorated, baking all night long, all the while thinking of the saint’s words.
When dawn broke the following day, his bakery was filled with the delicious scent of ginger cookies and caramel, and his counter was piled high with the most beautiful Saint Nicholas cookies he had ever made. As he stood admiring his work, there was a rap on his door. He glanced at the time, noting how early it was, then went to the door and there stood the wizened old woman from the year before, a coin in her hand.
“A dozen cookies, Van Amsterdam,” she demanded.
As before, Van Amsterdam counted out 12 cookies, packing them carefully in a box. But with the saint’s advice ringing in his ears, he slipped in one more cookie before closing the box.
The old woman dropped the coin in his hand and then opened the box to count the cookies.
“I see that you’ve learned to count, Van Amsterdam.” The woman smiled and just for a moment, Van Amsterdam thought he saw a red robe trimmed with white before she turned from him and disappeared around the corner.
From that day on, Van Amsterdam’s luck changed. Customers heard about the baker’s dozen and they flocked to his bakery again. His wife returned, and his cookies, cakes, and breads were even better than before. And when the news traveled that Van Amsterdam’s baked goods were not only the best in the city but that in his bakery, a dozen was always 13 instead of 12, he soon had to open a second and then a third bakery to cope with demand!
The story of his success traveled far and wide, and soon other bakers began to give customers 13 cookies when they ordered a dozen, in order to try to compete with Van Amsterdam. It is said that this is how a baker’s dozen came to be 13 and not 12, a tradition that is alive and well in some parts of the United States even today.
Giving a little more
If the last few months have made you forget the value of generosity, perhaps this tale will help you remember just how rewarding it can be to give a little more than people expect.
Certainly, that’s one of our values at American Christmas. We strive to not only meet our customers’ expectations, but we like to go a little bit further and exceed their expectations. We like to think that’s our “13th cookie”, one of the elements of the spirit of Christmas that we keep alive all year long.
Perhaps this story will help you find your “13th cookie” and share it too.
Think a conversation might be useful?
If you think it might be useful to have a conversation about Christmas lighting and decoration, we’d love to talk about how we can meet and exceed your expectations. Get in touch with us and let’s see how American Christmas can make your holiday décor experience a seamless one.
This story comes from “Myths and Legends of Our Own Land” by Charles M. Skinner, Lippincott, Philadelphia, and London, 1896; reprinted by Singing Tree Press, Detroit, 1969.
Saint Nicholas’s Day is observed on December 6th in Western Christian countries and Romania and on December 5th in the Netherlands. It is the feast day of Saint Nicholas and it is celebrated as a Christian festival with particular regard to his reputation as a bringer of gifts. Source: Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas_Day, accessed 26th April 2018.