Call her a professional celebrator: Jeanne Fleming has spent the better part of her 70 years in the celebration business, from staging the Official Land Celebration for the Centennial of the Statue of Liberty to decades at the helm of staging New York City’s Village Halloween Parade: Giant puppets. Multiple stages. Eclectic performers. Bursts of spectacular color. Star-studded pageantry.
Thirty-some years ago, when Fleming trained her attention on what began as a small hometown holiday celebration for Rhinebeck residents, her parameters were threefold and simple: “for children, at the holidays and about a Dutch tradition.”
“I had never heard of Sinterklaas, and after a couple of days of researching, I came across it. Not only was it perfect in every way for the requirements, but it was also about the history of our country, the history of the Hudson Valley; and it had elements of Santa Claus, too. Then,” she added, “there were imperfect things: How would it work for our time, be democratic and be a non-denominational holiday that includes everyone and is about children?”
In creating celebrations today, Fleming says that the focus should be all about how to bring communities together in this day and age. “We’re not only separated by ethnicity, religion, by being rich or poor, but now also by virtual reality and computers. How do you get people together in real live environments?”
Today, the celebrations of Sinterklaas in Kingston and Rhinebeck recreate – and update – holiday customs that the Hudson Valley’s early Dutch settlers brought with them from Holland when they came here centuries ago, and are based on a simple ritual. In early December, a town resident dressed up as Sinterklaas (wearing a bishop’s tall red hat, red cape, shiny ring, jeweled staff) and then, mounted on a white steed, rode through town, knocking on doors late at night. He was accompanied by a Grumpus, a wild-looking half-man, half-beast, who rattled chains and threatened to whisk naughty children into his black bag and steal them away. Less naughty children received a lesser punishment – switches with branches – and good children were awarded a bag of goodies.
The celebration evolved over time to include a parade, led by the kindly bishop, who became the patron saint of children and needy others. And every December, Sinterklaas would leave Spain, where he lives during the rest of the year, and arrive in Amsterdam by boat. You can read much more about the history of Sinterklaas at www.sinterklaashudsonvalley.com.
In the present-day Hudson Valley Sinterklaas celebrations, Kingston plays the role of Spain and Rhinebeck assumes the role of Holland. Sinterklaas leaves Kingston by tugboat on Saturday, November 28 and arrives in Rhinebeck on Saturday, December 5. Both celebrations are family-oriented fun, and elevate children to the status of “Kings and Queens,” honoring them as the bringers of light in a season of darkness.
Sinterklaas continues in Rhinebeck on December 5
In Rhinebeck, festivities begin at 10 a.m. at the Firehouse on Saturday, December 5, where Crowns and Branches workshops are held. Throughout the day, the entire village is taken over by celebrations, performances, workshops, music, food, puppet/magic shows, dancing, a merry-go-round, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, special events for adults and – new this year – SinterUnderground for teens, too. If you have questions, just go up to an Ask Me Lady and you’ll get your answer. Festivities continue into the night, with the Children’s Starlight Parade, the Grand Finale Pageant and the Children’s Star Ceremony, followed by a wassail, a hoedown and dancing until 11 p.m.
Each year, an Honored Animal is featured, and this year, it’s the honeybee. Artist (and co-owner of Olivieri’s Arts & Crafts in Kingston) Felix Olivieri has created a gigantic hive with a 3-D Queen Bee inside, and it will be in Foster’s parking lot from 12 noon to 6 p.m. “It’s our answer to sitting on Santa’s lap and asking for stuff,” explains Fleming. “It’s a community ritual, and bees are all about communities that are threatened by division. One child at a time goes into the hive and the Queen Bee will give each child a secret message about how to live in community, take care of family – things like that.” Children have been busy working on 1,000 drawings of bee-children representing themselves, too.
“If you have an inspiring idea, things can happen quickly,” says Fleming, looking back over the way that the Sinterklaas Celebration has flourished and grown larger each year in Rhinebeck, now estimated to attract 15,000 people each year. ”
“One of my favorite parts,” says Fleming, “is at the end of the Rhinebeck pageant. I love it when the children touch the nose of the Peace Dove and sing a Medieval song about peace on Earth. It really brings us all together. The adults carry Sinterklaas stars and then go down on one knee, at the level of the children, who are the Kings and Queens, the tallest, and everyone cheers for the children. Then, the adults stand and everyone becomes one community under the stars.”
Sinterklaas Celebration in Rhinebeck, Saturday, December 5, 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Village of Rhinebeck, www.sinterklaashudsonvalley.com.