Saint’s alive: Sinterklaas returns to the Hudson Valley

In the present-day Hudson Valley Sinterklaas celebrations, Kingston plays the role of Spain and Rhinebeck assumes the role of Holland. Sinterklaas gets feted in a parade on the Rondout and then leaves Kingston by tugboat on Saturday, November 25 and arrives in Rhinebeck, via Rhinecliff, on Saturday, December 2. 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. (photo by Mark Fuerst)

It would be difficult to find a place in the world anymore where Santa Claus isn’t a recognizable icon. Even in Japan, where Christians are scarce and Christmas is an almost exclusively secular holiday, one encounters the figure of Hoteiosho: a portly, benevolent Buddhist monk who bestows gifts on good children and has an extra pair of eyes in the back of his head to detect whether they’ve been naughty or nice.

St. Nicholas may have started out, historically, as a bishop in fourth-century Asia Minor with a reputation for strategic philanthropy, somehow making his way to the Netherlands to become Amsterdam’s patron saint; but it’s arguably New Yorkers – particularly residents of the Hudson Valley – who are largely to blame or thank for the jolly fat man’s international ubiquity. While there is evidence that the early settlers of New Netherland observed certain traditions associated with the feast day of Sinterklaas on December 6, it appears that they were largely forgotten by the time Washington Irving – the original consummate New Yorker – came along with a mission to rekindle public interest in the region’s roots in Dutch folklore. In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon. Eleven years later, the publication of A Visit from St. Nicholas expanded that image into the reindeer-drawn, scarlet-clad Santa we know best today.

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“Cultural appropriation” is a term of vilification these days, but some regional traditions are just too juicy and irrepressible not to be shared with the rest of the world. They’ll leap out of any box that we try to stuff them into. Put an African musician in the same room with a Celtic one, both their favored instruments being handy, and not much time will elapse before they’re trading riffs and rhythms. It may not be such a bad thing that some beloved holidays have become part of the universal language as well, even if they often get garbled in translation (like Americans drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day or using el Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to imbibe).

So, if the way that Rhinebeck and Kingston have been reviving Sinterklaas customs over the past seven years bears a whiff of revisionism and sanitization (naughty children being swatted with switches: out; arguably racially stereotyped Moorish helper Zwarte Piet: out; spin of the holiday as a celebration of diversity: in), well, so be it. The Hudson Valley gave the world St. Nick as most folks now know him; why not reinvent him yet again, just a little?

Some elements of the Dutch Sinterklaas festival are determinedly preserved here, such as the tradition that the saint’s boat is coming over from Spain – Kingston, for local purposes – although that notion may actually be derived from the time-honored custom of giving Iberian-grown oranges as a stocking-stuffer. The Grumpuses that disembark at Rhinecliff in Sinterklaas’ entourage are quite a bit less terrifying than the wild, demonic Krampuses of the Old World, but they’re there. In time, our Sinterklaas festival may become the definitive version, if enough people find that the spirit of the event resonates with them on a deep level. If so, having been there in the crucible of creation during the founding years of a regional neo-tradition seems like a life experience worth checking off one’s bucket list. Experience it, either in Kingston on November 25 or in Rhinebeck on December 2, and see how it feels to you.

Kingston

Preparatory workshops for making masks, crowns and branches for kids to wear in the Sinterklaas parades on both sides of the river have already been going on for weeks. The final Crowns & Branches workshops will be held at the Hudson River Maritime Museum on Friday, November 24 from 1 to 4 p.m. and on Saturday, November 25 at 11 a.m. The big Sinterklaas Send-Off Celebration in the Rondout Historic Waterfront District happens on Saturday, November 25. Children adorned with crowns and starry branches are declared kings and queens for the day, attending a variety of live performances before accompanying Sinterklaas and his retinue in a grand evening procession to the waterfront before he sets sail for “Holland” (Rhinecliff). Beginning with a Parrots for Peace event at the Kingston Library at noon, Kingston comes alive with open houses, musical performances, storytelling and puppet shows. Scheduled performers include storyteller Laureate Karen Pillsworth, the Ivy Vine Players, Sean the Prankster Magician, musician Mark Rust and many more.

A tent in the garden next to Mariners’ Harbor will house an “Ask Me” table, elephant maskmaking area (the elephant is this year’s “honored animal”) and the “Sinter Store.” A colorful cast of characters will roam through the downtown area all afternoon, including the Pocket Lady, roving Grumpuses, the Man with Bells and Sinterella. As the light begins to dim, the Children’s Maritime Parade marches down Broadway to the Rondout Creek, and as the crowd waves goodbye to Sinterklaas. The evening culminates with a tugboat-lighting ceremony in the yard of the Hudson River Maritime Museum, followed by a Sinterklaas Soirée (for grownups) at Mariners’ Harbor.

For information, call (845) 339-4280 or visit www.sinterklaashudsonvalley.com or www.facebook/sinterklaaskingston.

Rhinecliff/Rhinebeck

Sinterklaas and his magical crew vanish into the Hudson River mists for a week and reemerge on the Rhinecliff waterfront on the morning of Saturday, December 2. He’ll ride into Rhinebeck on his white horse, and the festivities go on all day long, with live dance, theater and music happening all over the village. Don’t miss the Dancing Bear, the Pocket Lady and Mother Holly. The spectacular Children’s Starlight Parade, featuring two-story-tall animated puppets carried by hundreds of volunteers, closes the day at twilight, followed by a Family Hoedown at 7 p.m. and an Adult Dance Party at 9 p.m.

All Sinterklaas events are free of charge and open to the public. Parking is available at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, Rhinebeck High School, the Rhinebeck Highway Department and the Starr Library. For more information, e-mail sinterklaashudsonvalley@gmail.com or visit www.sinterklaashudsonvalley.com.