Etymology: Beschuit is a bastardization of the French word biscuit, which means 'twice baked'. Muisjes, which translate as 'little mice', owes its name to the distinctive, irregular shape of the sugar-covered aniseed, with the stem sticking out from the round seed to resemble a tail, like that of a mouse. Mice were a symbol of fertility and aniseed was thought to be beneficial for lactation, digestion and post-natal cramps.
The sharing of bread has a long association with births in the Netherlands. In fact, according to J.H. Nannings in his book Brood- en gebaksvormen en hunne beteekenis in de folklore (Schiedam, Interbook International, 1974), the act of sharing of various baked goods (bread in particular) to celebrate births may have its origin in the symbolic sacrificial meals and atonement sacrifices of the ancient pagan religion of the area. Nannings argues that the usage of muisjes could be a throw-back to the old fertility blessing of strewing children with rye grains during their baptismal procession. Aniseed was used because it was seen as not only beneficial for digestion but good for getting rid of evil spirits. And, sugar, an import product, was once a sign of wealth.
The combination of bread and sugar as a way to celebrate the birth of a child is still traditional all over the Netherlands. Various forms of sugared breads, such as krentenwegge (currant bread) and sûkerbôlle (bread baked with lumps of pearled sugar) were once served to welcome the newest member of a family.
One of the most enduring traditions is that of beschuit met muisjes, buttered rusk-like rounds of twice-baked bread topped with sugar-covered aniseed, served to family and friends visiting a newborn baby. While muisjes look similar to nonpareils, hundreds-and-thousands or sprinkles, they are, in fact, aniseed covered with a layer of colored sugar.
The origins of muisjes go back to the Middle Ages. In fact, according to Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra in her book Het Nederlands Bakboek (Utrecht/Antwerp, Kosmos Uitgevers, 2012), it was the custom in the late Middle Ages to sprinkle sugared anise- or caraway seeds, known as trigi or tragi over food, and these sugared seeds were also used to decorate pies, cakes and other pastries. The author claims that it was only in the 18th century that muisjes were given to the siblings of newborn babies as a way of welcoming the newest member of the family. The new mother was also given aniseed in the form of porridge, gruel or anise bread. Visitors to the childbed were treated to sugared breads or a slice of buttered white bread with sugar, known as kindermanstik or suikerstik.
Muisjes were once a luxury product, made in small batches by specialized pastry chefs who patiently covered aniseed with layer upon layer of sugar. This process was industrialized by Cornelis de Ruijter, who founded the De Ruijter company in 1860. De Ruijter specialized in geboortemuisjes, the pink and white variety of muisjes that is still manufactured by the company today. Blue and white muisjes, now associated with the birth of boys, were introduced in 1994. Thanks to De Ruijter, muisjes became more and more popular, but it was the birth of Crown Princess Beatrix in 1938, and the publicity surrounding the introduction of orange muisjes to mark the occasion, that really popularized the sugared treats. Orange is the color of the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. Today, beschuit met muisjes is served in most Dutch homes to celebrate the birth of a child. Boxes of De Ruijter muisjes are available at every supermarket in the Netherlands.