Winter can really put a stranglehold on the Hudson Valley and its residents. The landscape is hungover from the psychedelic autumn leaf hues that draw a snappy tourist trade right up until Thanksgiving. By the time December rolls around, the tour buses are a distant memory and the motel rooms gather dust.
But not in the village of Rhinebeck. December in northern Dutchess County starts with a Dutch bang of color and pageantry — a day-long street festival and evening parade known as Sinterklaas. For the past six winters, the first Saturday in December has been a day for this normally staid upstate burg to let its collective hair down, with an event that is equal parts carnival and ancient tradition, featuring offbeat events, characters, and artistic expression that flies in the face of the standard yuletide clichés.
“Rhinebeck is ideally suited for this event,” says Jeanne Fleming, the celebration artist who just celebrated her 30th year at the helm of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, and who can claim Sinterklaas as her brainchild. (She also directed the Statue of Liberty Centennial Harbor Festival in 1986.) Fleming, who lives and runs her production company on the Rokeby Estate near Rhinebeck, relaunched Sinterklaas in 2008. She had attempted the “Old Dutch Christmas” celebration in the mid 1980s but it failed to gain traction, partly because of lack of funding and partly because “Rhinebeck back then was more conservative,” Fleming explains.
Rhinebeck officials had a change of heart after a longtime crafts fair pulled up stakes and moved to Massachusetts, leaving village leaders fearful of empty holiday streets. Fleming’s original mission was to create an event that involved holiday celebration, children, and the local Dutch heritage. Fleming’s research showed the original 18th-century Dutch settlers of the Rhinebeck area probably celebrated Sinterklaas, an old tradition in which their version of St. Nicholas — a fourth-century bishop on a white horse who helped inspire the modern Santa Claus icon — rode through Dutch villages rewarding well-behaved children, while a thuggish Grumpus at his side would put a friendly scare into the “naughty” youngsters.
Now armed with hundreds of volunteers and widespread community support, Fleming’s Sinterklaas has become a hot destination for those seeking a different take on holiday celebrations. Last year, says Fleming, roughly 6,500 people attended, almost double the turnout from three years ago. The show-stealers are 19 Grumpus characters decked out in densely layered outfits that pit steampunk aesthetics against Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, with a little Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel thrown in. A mysterious masked group made up of local restaurateurs and community leaders and bored dads, they lurk around corners and keep the children on their toes, even in the most wintry conditions.
The Sinterklaas nighttime “starlight” parade, which oozes over a hill outside of the village and makes its way into the center of Rhinebeck, features Fleming’s trademark animal-themed puppet floats, held aloft and operated by teams on the ground. Fleming says participants can look for lots of hummingbird puppetry at this year’s festival. “Though the hummingbirds have flown south for the winter, they will be back in Rhinebeck where they can feel the vibration of an intense concentration of joy,” she says.
Though it keeps very adult hours, in the end the festival is all about children. Fleming tweaked St. Nicholas’s tradition of sorting good children from bad by creating a royalty theme. “Instead of judging the children, I thought instead we should honor them,” she explains. The kids are made kings and queens for a day, donning handmade paper crowns and wielding decorated branch scepters.
Attendees buy illuminated cardboard stars to hold during the parade, which has no official barricades to separate the marchers from the audience lining the street. The parade ends with a pageant where adults bow down to the younger generation that stands among the lowered stars. The kids then hold up their scepters, to which they have attached three of their own written wishes — one for family, one for community, and one for the world. Fleming says the wishes allow the children to “understand their responsibility to be a good king or queen.”
Aside from its roots dating back to 17th-century Dutch settlers, Rhinebeck is also a geographically perfect setting for Sinter-klaas. A Norman Rockwell diorama village set along the Hudson River roughly 100 miles north of the Cloisters, Rhinebeck offers well-preserved houses and shops thronged around a one-stoplight intersection that used to be the unofficial halfway point between Gotham and Albany. At that intersection is the historic Beekman Arms Inn and Tavern, which serves as the unofficial hub of the spoked wheel that is Sinterklaas, with a bell-ringing town crier circulating through the streets announcing events and performances.
The festival offers more than 250 performers and a vast program including teddy-bear beauty pageants, vaudeville-type circus acts inside the local cinema, illuminated books, trees made of Christmas cookies, pantomime-style plays in hotel lobbies, and all manner of roving bands, buskers, and street characters. Sinterklaas is still a big deal in the Netherlands, where his arrival by boat from his traditional homeland of Spain warrants live television coverage.
“It is our Mardi Gras, with all that entails, good and bad,” says Gina Walker Fox, a Rhinebeck resident of 20 years and former town board member who has attended every Sinterklaas festival. Parking and security have become issues as the festival has grown, but village officials and law enforcement have meshed well with Fleming, her staff, and volunteers to smooth out any logistical wrinkles.
Fleming has taken special care in keeping Sinterklaas a multicultural event. Though it is not a religious festival, local churches host concerts and stage a Living Nativity scene. Children and officials from the Rhinebeck Hebrew School and Temple Emanuel open the parade with a havdalah ceremony involving intertwined candles to mark the end of the Jewish Sabbath and the start of a secular Sinterklaas party. A Native American blessing held inside the Beekman Arms calls the community together, and the local Mexican population is represented by the astoundingly colorful Chinelos dancers, who wowed last year’s overflow crowds. As each Sinterklaas festival adds to the tradition and the word spreads, those crowds are filled with more and more people from out of town: travelers who — once they’ve experienced the Sinterklaas festival — might know what the Three Wise Men felt like back in the day.