The thousands of LED-lit Star Lanterns that snake their way through Rhinebeck with the parade represent the community coming together to celebrate. The kids are honored as kings and queens by the adults of the town. Giant puppet penguins are carried through the village by local volunteer puppeteers; the Honored Animal this year is the Fox.
This is the scene at Sinterklaas, Rhinebeck’s annual non-denominational Winter Celebration. Sinterklaas is the updated successor to the town’s previous holiday pageant, Old Dutch Christmas, which had an eight-year run but was benched until 2007, when event coordinator Jeanne Fleming was given the green light to turn Rhinebeck into a whimsical holiday extravaganza once again.
According to Fleming, the idea of a holiday pageant in Rhinebeck was something of an emergency measure. After Rhinebeck’s Dutchess County Fairgrounds lost its Crafts Fair, a major annual attraction attended by people from around the world, Fleming was asked to create a new town event, and she brainstormed with around 100 of the most diverse Rhinebeck citizens she could assemble.
“They came up with and voted on a million ideas,” said Fleming. “But what they wanted most was an event for children, around the holidays, based on the Dutch tradition.” After doing a little research, Fleming came upon the old Dutch festival of Sinterklaas, the yearly Carnival celebrating the fourth-century patron saint of children and sailors, Saint Nicholas.
Fleming liked that it was a holiday event, and the idea of Sinterklaas himself: a kingly good guy with an abiding love for children of every race and creed. She also liked that Sinterklaas is truly a throwback’s throwback. Not only does the modern iteration of the Sinterklaas character embody the spirit and essence of Nicholas, but the character of Saint Nicholas, it is believed, is also built on the frame of the old Norse chief god Odin and the Good King Wenceslas of song fame.
Less appealing to Fleming was the part of the event wherein the Wild Men or Black Peters beat naughty children with a stick. Fleming decided to turn that idea upside-down, and to make Sinterklaas a celebration of children, in which the birch rods with which they were beaten were turned into their royal scepters.
The event has grown exponentially in the past few years, with Sinterklaas not only having a home in Rhinebeck, but in Kingston as well. Years ago, a Dutch teacher named Jan Schenkman wrote an illustrated children’s book that showed Sinterklaas as arriving in Holland from Spain on a steamboat. Saint Nicholas was popular in Spain as the patron saint of sailors, and in modern iterations of the holiday, is often seen arriving to Sinterklaas celebrations on a steamboat. Kingston will play the part of Spain on Saturday, November 30, when, after a day of celebration, Kingston will send Sinterklaas off on a tugboat to arrive later in Rhinebeck, representing Holland.
Sinterklaas will arrive in Rhinebeck on Saturday, December 7 in the Children’s Starlight Parade – a beautiful culmination to a day of celebration. After a day of all-ages fun and partying, the parade will begin at 6 p.m. Fleming herself will lead the parade, ringing an antique bell left to her by DeWitt Grinnell, a longtime Rhinebeck resident who was a noted organizer of village events. “The parade actually starts with people hearing Uncle DeWitt’s bell: a kind of a voice from the past, real Rhinebeck history. And that’s followed by Sinterklaas himself accompanied by his white horse,” said Fleming.
The parade itself is unlike any other holiday celebration because it is based on a story in which everyone who attends or participates plays a part. There are dance troupes and performance artists, The Snow King and Queen, The Pocket Lady, scores of puppets and the aforementioned gigantic papier-mâché creatures. “Really, in the parade, we’re honoring all kinds of folks. There are creatures from the woods, there are mythical creatures – dragons – and there are horses representing the farm. There are sheep and rams and bears. And live llamas. There are celestial objects: the Seven Sisters, the Sun, the Moon, Grandmother Earth. Every year we have an honored animal, honoring native tradition,” Fleming said.
In order, the day moves from Native American to the Dutch tradition to the English, represented by Saint George and the Dragon, and then it involves the diverse groups that represent the area today, with different ethnic performance groups.
Lila Pague, owner of Winter Sun/Summer Moon in Rhinebeck, has been working with Fleming on Sinterklaas for six years. Pague had fond memories of the Old Dutch Christmas event and jumped on board when she heard that Sinterklaas was making its return. “People love it,” said Page. “It’s authentic, it’s delightful, it’s participatory. Putting together the parade, making the puppet and signs – people just love the process.”
Sinterklaas is far from Fleming’s first extravaganza. She was tapped to design and produce the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial celebration; she produced the Opening Event for the Walkway over the Hudson in 2009 and she is the creative director of New York’s legendary Village Halloween Parade. However, she has a soft spot for Sinterklaas. “It’s a chance to make our own, new tradition,” said Fleming. “It’s just something really special.”
Sinterklaas in Kingston’s Rondout, Saturday, November 30, events on Broadway, East Strand & on Pennsy 399 Historic Covered Barge, 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; The Children’s Maritime Parade down Broadway to escort Sinterklaas to his Tugboat is at 4 p.m.; followed by a tree-lighting at the Visitor Center at 5 p.m. Sinterklaas in Rhinebeck, Saturday, December 7, events at village halls, churches and businesses 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Children’s Starlight Parade, 6 p.m.; Star Ceremony in Municipal Parking Lot, 6:45 p.m. For more information, go to https://www.sinterklaashudsonvalley.com