Behind the Scenes at Rhinebeck's Sinterklaas
The story of how one woman helped put Rhinebeck on the map as one of the country’s most “Christmassy” towns.
According to the Dutch tradition, every year Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands from Spain, spending the whole year in the Low Country to bless children. In Fleming’s variation, Sinterklaas’ journey begins on the Kingston waterfront, where he leads the Children’s Maritime Parade before boarding a boat headed for Rhinebeck. Dutch actor Hank Dyck has achieved fame back in his homeland for his portrayal in the local production.
Back in 1985, following the move of the beloved Rhinebeck Craft Fair from the Dutchess County Fairgrounds to Massachusetts, a group of residents met to discuss a new event for the village. Rhinebeck resident Jeanne Fleming, whose events experience includes a long-running stint as the director of New York City’s Village Halloween Parade and the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, seemed like the perfect person to lead the initiative.
She assembled a hundred people of all ages “from kids to the elderly,” businesses, churches, and government officials and asked them what sort of event they wanted to see.
Jeanne Fleming and her collaborators have created many recurring characters and personalities, such as Grumpusand the Polar Bear (below), who asks that children sing so that he can dance for them.
PHoto by Michael DiPleco
After many rounds of voting, Fleming was surprised: “People wanted an event around the Holidays,” she says, “for children, and based around their Dutch heritage.” But about what? She eventually discovered the story of Sinterklaas, a Dutch Christmas tradition that celebrates children.
Fleming altered aspects of the medieval celebration, removing all references to the punishment of naughty children and transforming the character of Zwarte Piet – traditionally performed by an actor in blackface – into the kinder, cuddlier, Grumpus.
Both weekends are filled with performances by a wide variety of puppeteers, musicians, actors, and more, who travel throughout downtown Kingston and Rhinebeck to entertain children.
Photo by Terrance McCorry
Fleming put on what was then entitled An Old Dutch Christmas in Rhinebeck for eight years, but a lack of funds and her young son’s cancer diagnosis eventually made it unfeasible. And in fact, her son played an important role in the festival’s 2008 return as Sinterklaas: “I had always wanted him to see it,” says Fleming, who notes that her son has been cancer-free since 2011.
But bringing it back came with some qualifications: support from local merchants, outreach to non-Christian communities, and the full participation of the Village of Rhinebeck.
The Grumpuses on the pageant stage.
Photos by Doug Baz
The Children’s Starlight Parade (above) is led by hundreds of illuminated stars, which Fleming added to incorporate the local Jewish community. Children carry crowns and scepters that they make earlier that day.
The modern celebration is set over two days. First is the send-off celebration in Kingston (Nov 30, this year), featuring a day full of activities including the Children’s Maritime Parade down to the waterfront, from which Sinterklaas and his horse set out by boat across the Hudson.
One week later (Dec 7, this year), he arrives in Rhinebeck for a full day of festivities, with musical and acrobatic performances, craft-making workshops, roaming street entertainment, and, after dark, the climactic Starlight Parade, where a phalanx of children with their hand-made crowns and branches escort Sinterklaas to the Star Pageant in the municipal lot.
Grumpuses and Batalá drumming group take a breather.
Photos by Doug Baz
At the Storytelling House event, Mother Holly invites a child to open the door and reveal the honored animal.
Fleming sees it as a testament to not only the season, but the entire community: “every single local group, every church, is involved.” More than anything, however, it’s about the kids. “We come together,” she says, “and celebrate all of our children together.”