Origin of Bakers Dozen: The Witch and St. Nicholas
What I find interesting is how many Christmas stories we’ve lost over time. The legend of Saint Nicholas and the baker’s dozen is one of those stories. As we head into Christmastime and start baking our favorite cookies and visiting our beloved bakeries, remember this tale. And remember that Saint Nicholas might have once had a witch friend who aided him in his magical endeavors. Who helped him teach lessons to those who needed it most. Now onto the story…
First, What is the Baker’s Dozen?
If you’ve never heard of a baker’s dozen, this story might not hold any meaning to you. So let’s explain. A baker’s dozen is a term you’ll hear used in bakeries, restaurants, and kitchens that churn out the delicious treats. If you ask someone for a dozen of anything, you’ll get handed twelve of that object. Since twelve is traditionally the same thing as a dozen. However, if you ask a baker or pastry chef to give you a dozen cookies, you might end up with thirteen instead. Thirteen is a baker’s dozen.
Not every bakery uses this measurement in modern times, but you may find some still do. There are quite a few theories as to why, including one that in Medieval times, the bakers would bake 13 of an item to ensure they always turned out with at least twelve. Apparently, if they came up short on a delivery, they might be flogged or punished in some other way. You can read more about it at Britannica.
The Tale & Origin of the Baker’s Dozen
The story (and origin) of the Baker’s Dozen was originally written in James Kirke Paulding’s The Book of St. Nicholas in the year 1836. And it went something like this…
It Began in New Amsterdam
In the Colonial United States, a part of Manhattan (NY City) was called New Amsterdam. In this early Dutch American settlement was a baker known as Boss Boomptie or Little Baker Boomptie. This was a man who took pride in his work, but who was also trying to provide for his family in hard times. Boss Boomptie baked bread, cookies, and all manner of baked goods and sold to the public. But Boss Boomptie wasn’t necessarily a generous, kind man and someone thought he needed to be taught an important lesson.
The Origin of Bakers Dozen 13
One New Years’ Night, when Boss Boomptie was tying one on with his family and friends, there was a knock on the bakery door. His shop was closed for the holidays, but he went to answer it – he could always use the business. At the door was a haggard old woman of which Boomptie thought must’ve been a witch. She was hunched over, had a crooked nose, and leaned on a cane. She asked for a dozen Saint Nicholas cookies. He gave her twelve, and she asked him again for a dozen. He said to her, “this is a dozen. There are twelve cookies here.” The witch shook her head and informed the baker a dozen cookies meant thirteen. The other bakeries gave their customers an extra cookie to the dozen.
A Cursed Bakery
Boomptie was appalled at the woman’s remarks and sent her on her way, claiming he had to feed his family too and how dare she ask for an extra cookie. As one might expect, the baker’s luck changed the following day. Unknown assailants stole Boomptie’s goods. His bread would never rise or rose so much that it literally floated out the chimney. He suspected he had been cursed. The old witch appeared again at his door and asked for a dozen cookies. Boomptie cursed the woman and sent her on her way. Well, his luck grew worse. None of his goods baked right and his customers believed his shop was cursed. No one came to buy Boomptie’s goods.
Saint Nicholas Appears
At this point, the baker had no option but to pray. He prayed to Saint Nicholas, saint of merchants, and asked for the witch’s evil curse to be lifted. Then decided to bake another batch of Saint Nicholas cookies. And when he did…they came out of the oven perfectly! He sat them in the window of the shop, and as he looked up, there stood Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas reminded the baker to give to those in need, just as God gives to us. Then came another knock on the door later that night. It was the same old woman, the witch. She asked Boomptie for a dozen cookies. He happily gave her thirteen and she claimed the curse lifted. From then on, the baker always included an extra cookie to the dozen. This was the tale of the first Baker’s Dozen.
A Witch Responsible for the Origin of Bakers Dozen or Saint Nicholas?
It’s interesting how Saint Nicholas knows exactly what happened between the baker and the witch…how the baker had turned the woman away when she requested an extra cookie. While they say Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus today) knows if you’ve been bad or good, I wonder whether the witch was in cahoots with Saint Nicholas. Or perhaps was the witch in the origin of the bakers dozen a shifted form of Saint Nicholas himself?
Witches often teach valuable lessons…
Witches appear in many tales from the past, often having a negative or antagonistic presence; however, they almost always represent a turn of events that teaches the main character an important lesson. In the story of the origin of the baker’s dozen, the baker needed to learn how to be generous and give to those in need. He had a greedy spirit, one that Saint Nicholas recognized and guided him to be a better person. If it wasn’t for the witch’s request and “curse”, the baker might not have ever learned the valuable lesson he did.