As Sinterklaas left the west bank of the Hudson, at the foot of Kingston’s Broadway last Saturday, the sense of holiday anticipation was palpable. Jeanne Fleming, the mastermind behind the Hudson Valley festival seemed to be everywhere, bright-voiced and happy, yet mindful of the thousands of details in play. This Saturday, December 7, the Sinterklaas festival reaches its finale in Rhinebeck. It’s a tradition culminating in the Children’s Starlight Parade in which kids are honored as kings and queens by adults, and thousands of people participate.
When Fleming was asked to create a new town event in 2007, she brainstormed with approximately 100 of the most diverse local 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.
“We wanted to change the central idea of the holiday into something not focused on what one wants for oneself – like a toy train or new shoes – but to thinking beyond oneself,” said Fleming. “We have each kid make three wishes, which get imbedded in the branches they carry. One is for family, one is for community and one is for the world.”
Fleming also liked 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 St. Nicholas, but the character of Old Saint Nick, it is believed, is also built on the frame of the old Norse chief god Odin and the Good King Wenceslas of song fame.
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 procession, 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. The honored animal this year is the fox.
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 just something really special,” said Fleming. “Children are our future and we should love them as they are. At the end of the festivities, the kids are all crowned, and all the adults go down on one knee to honor them, making the children in their crowns with their three-wish branches the tallest things in a crowd of thousands – at which point the grownups hold their stars like a sea for them to survey. And that’s when the ritual is sealed.”
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