Santa Stops in Rhinebeck
The Village of Rhinebeck celebrates the season with its own take on a popular — and colorful — Dutch tradition
Sinterklaas is Comin’ to Town: Father Christmas and his entourage bring holiday cheer from Holland straight to the streets of Rhinebeck
Photograph by Jana McVey
Most kids remember the day they discovered Kris Kringle was a fraud.
The signs were everywhere: Saint Nick’s oddly detachable beard in the mall; the absence of reindeer tracks in the snow; Mom’s stash of gifts in the closet. Suspicions were confirmed when no one emerged from the chimney during the nightlong Santa Patrol (as if the big guy could’ve squeezed in there, anyhow).
But for the folks in Rhinebeck, Sinterklaas (Dutch for “Saint Nicholas”) is very real — and they’ve got the stuff to prove it.
“On Thanksgiving weekend, Sinterklaas arrives by boat in nearby Rhinecliff, you know,” says Jeanne Fleming, a self-proclaimed “celebration artist” and owner of the event-production company Wonderworks. “During the week, he rides through town on a white horse, giving candy to the kids.” But the real suspension of disbelief occurs on the first Saturday of December, when downtown Rhinebeck is transformed into a wonderland, complete with arts and crafts, storytellers, musical performances, a Havdalah circle lead by the town rabbi, a real-life nativity scene — and, of course, Sinterklaas himself.
Sinterklaas and his entourage haven’t always graced the Valley with their presence. After the popular Crafts at Rhinebeck fair relocated out of state in the early 1980s, a concerned town merchant approached Fleming. “He said, ‘Everyone is going to forget Rhinebeck — make something for us!’ ” she recalls. So Fleming — who directs the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (and, most recently, Walkway Over the Hudson’s “Walking On Air” procession) — held a charrette in town to find a suitable replacement. “Everyone had tons of ideas,” she remembers. “At the end of the night we voted on a holiday event for children, based on the Dutch heritage called Sinterklaas. It was absolutely perfect for the town.” With a little tweaking and a lot of fund-raising, Fleming and representatives from all over the community successfully created Rhinebeck’s first Sinterklaas celebration. The annual procession — which took place for six years in the ’80s — was so successful, in fact, that it garnered kudos from The New Yorker, and was named a “best bet” by New York Magazine, according to Fleming.
The “Grumpy” Grumpus, a member of Sinterklaas’ entourage, during last year’s parade
Photograph by Gerry Montesano
Why Rhinebeck? “It is the most fabulous petri dish,” Fleming exclaims. “There’s this immense diversity. It’s really an amazing opportunity to try to bring a community together that otherwise might be divided on all kinds of lines” — including political ones. In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas is always accompanied by a Moroccan boy, Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. “Even in Holland,” Fleming says, “this character has recently come under attack because of racial concerns.” At a town board meeting to raise money for the first festival, there was opposition to including this character — whose wild, jovial antics help put children at ease and counteract Sinterklaas’ more traditional, fatherly presence. “I don’t know what came over me. I knew one of the town board members was known as a very grumpy guy,” Fleming says, “so I offered to give up Black Peter’s character if this man would take his place as a Grumpus — a wild man from the forest.” Of course, the councilman wouldn’t agree to do it alone. So Rhinebeck’s Sinterklaas travels with his own band of Grumpuses played by volunteer community leaders, lawyers — even the mayor. “They each have their own frightening costume,” laughs Fleming. “They’re very familiar figures in the town, dancing and giving out candy to the children. Of course, the kids know it’s just [Town Council Member and Director of Recreation] Bruce Washburn, or [Village Board Trustee] Svend Beecher.”
Due to fund-raising difficulties in the late ’80s, the Sinterklaas festivities were canceled indefinitely. Fleming moved on to other projects, producing festivals for cities in Poland, Brazil, and Indonesia. She considered bringing Sinterklaas’ parade back to the town in 1997 after heeding the pleas of friends and community members. But when her then-seven-year-old son developed cancer, planning was once more put on hold. “I had to stop. I couldn’t do it and take care of him,” she says. Finally, in 2008 — after a 19-year hiatus — the townspeople persuaded Fleming to reprise the festival. “I’ve always wanted my son to see it,” Fleming recalls. “It’s my favorite event. I decided to do it again, for him.”
Not surprisingly, last year’s revival was a great success, drawing thousands to Rhinebeck — and giving Fleming a renewed enthusiasm for what she believes to be a staple of the town’s holiday celebrations. “It has a magic to it, and it has to do with Rhinebeck,” she says. “It has to do with this particular place, the particular landscape, this deep tradition... There are lots of people involved at all different levels, so ownership of it doesn’t really belong to me. It belongs to everyone.”
And as for Sinterklaas — will he finally reveal his identity? “Ah, that will be a surprise,” says Fleming. But kiddies won’t be disappointed: The magic that Sinterklaas brings — whomever he (or she) happens to be — is definitely the real deal.
The Sinterklaas Parade takes place in Rhinebeck December 5. Call 845-758-5519 or visit www.sinterklaasrhinebeck.com for a complete schedule and more information.