A bizarre and relatively new tradition in the Netherlands has it that, every 29 November, Dutch families should sit down for dinner with a pancake on their heads in order to wish one another “a happy and blessed Saint Pancake”.
Nothing whatsoever to do with the “Pancake Day” celebration observed in Britain on Shrove Tuesday every year, this cheerfully absurd institution was in fact the invention of cartoonist Jan Kruis, who first laid it out in a comic strip he published in the women’s magazine Libelle in November 1986.
In Kruis’s comic, his protagonist Catootje Tromp complains about the prospect of having beans for supper yet again, at which point her grandfather points out that the date happens to be 29 November, the holy day of Sint Pannekoek, or Saint Pancake, on which it is customary to wear a pancake on your head.
— Lucien Knol (@LucienKnol) November 29, 2023
The family tries it, shocking father Jan when he returns home exhausted from a long day at work.
The artist subsequently developed his idea in 2015 in another comic, “The Gospel of Saint Pancake”, in which he explained the origins of his spurious custom for the first time.
In that work, Grandpa Tromp tells Catootje that the legend of Saint Pannekoek can be traced to a 12th-century monastery situated along the Rotte River near Kralingen in modern day Rotterdam, where Brother Gerrit, a young monk, is celebrating his 15th birthday.
When the monastery’s elderly abbot complains about the November chill during the meal, Gerrit selflessly places a steaming pancake on his bald pate to keep him warm, at which point an angel descends bearing a golden frying pan and tosses the novice a replacement as a reward for his generous act of sacrifice.
“Hallelujah! The Lord has done us a miracle! We have a saint in our midst!” the monks rejoice. A new tradition is born.
The story is affectionately told on the website of the Sint Pannekoek National Committee, founded by Kruis and friends in August 2016 with the intention of promoting the event, even selling commemorative stamps and postcards designed by the artist to spread its eccentric gospel.
— Erwin Steinbruckner (@erwinstein) November 29, 2023
Kruis passed away six years ago but deserves to be widely remembered for the simple brilliance of his idea, introducing some much-needed silliness into the lives of millions as the cold nights draw in.
Social media has helped spread the word of Sint Pannekoek even further over the last decade, with few observers of the occasion, young or old, able to resist the temptation to post a self-deprecating selfie.
“It is totally made up of course, but apparently it has gained some traction,” Henriette Louwerse, a senior lecturer in Dutch at the University of Sheffield, told Sky News this week.
“I like the implicit criticism of ‘the holiness of traditions’. The tendency to suggest that if traditions change, a profound identity is somehow infringed.”