Sinterklass goes bi-coastal

Sinterklaas 2011 (photo by Nancy Donskoj)

Over time traditional holidays tend to lose some of their original meaning, becoming commercialized or trivialized. (Thanksgiving is the refreshing exception to this rule.) Having associations that are no longer relevant — and perhaps weren’t pc to begin with — they become attenuated, losing their hold on the community. To make up for this loss, some creative people in Rhinebeck came up with a brilliant idea: introduce your own holiday celebration and craft your own rituals.

It started back in the late 1980s, when Jeanne Fleming put on a parade people were still talking about 20 years later. Fleming, whose flamboyant, sublime productions include the Halloween Parade in New York City and the procession for the opening of Walkway Over the Hudson, was inspired by Sinterklaas, a Dutch holiday celebrated on December 6. That Dutch connection helped resurrect Fleming’s parade, making it the perfect opening event for the Hudson Quadricentennial celebration, and so four years ago on the first Saturday in December, Sinterklaas made its second debut in Rhinebeck. Since then it’s become an annual event — well, more than that: it’s become a big deal, with hundreds of volunteers holding fundraising events and preparation workshops for a parade presided over by two-story-tall puppets and enlivened by jesters, bands, firewalkers, dancers, you name it. The whole town celebrates, with music brimming from community rooms and churches and dances held for everyone at Town Hall.

In a refreshing counterpoint to a Christmas holiday reviled by many for its crass commercialism, Sinterklaas as conceived by Fleming and her volunteers celebrates the collective good — the innocence of children (who become kings and queens for the day) and the all-inclusiveness of the community. Based, as is our Santa Claus (a name for St. Nicholas coined by an Episcopal priest living near Rhinebeck in the 19th century), on a fourth-century bishop from Myrna, in Asia Minor, Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam on December 5, disembarking from a ship that has sailed from Spain and riding through the streets on a white horse the following day, an event enthusiastically captured by the TV cameras. Traditionally he distributed candy to children and was accompanied by his sidekick, the Grumpus, a wild-looking creature who threatened to thrust the bad children into his black bag — or at least give them a blow with his birch switch.

Sinterklaas remains the most popular holiday in Holland; today families celebrate by getting together and eating sweets. Transplanted to Rhinebeck, the celebration has become more elaborate, stretching out over several days and climaxing in the parade on December 1. Last year the event spread to Kingston: the Saturday after Thanksgiving — this year, November 24 — Sinterklaas, regal in his (or her; in some years the character is played by a woman) tall bishop’s hat, ruby red robes, and gem-encrusted scepter, parades down Broadway, escorted by revelers carrying stars, puppets, and model ships. He boards a boat and crosses the river, this year arriving in Rhinebeck at 4 p.m.; he then will proceed to the Rhinecliff Hotel, where children will be treated to a dragon play, a dance by Grumpuses, and live music. Sinterklaas can be spotted throughout the village on the nights of December 1, 2, and 3 and will appear in the Children’s Starlit Parade on December 1.

Fleming and her crew have transformed the scary, negative aspects of the tradition — namely, the Grumpus and his promise of comeuppance for the bad children — into its empowering opposite, a ritual in which children carry branches and wear crowns, symbolizing their elevation to crowned royalty for the day. Workshops are scheduled in both Rhinebeck and Kingston at which kids can make their own branches (derived from the Grumpus’ rod and now transformed by ribbons, lace, and other decorations) and crowns. Meanwhile, the adults participating in the Starlit Parade are advised to carry white paper stars, which play a key part in the ritual: with a signal from the MC, each star-carrier will kneel, symbolically elevating the crowned children, then stand and thrust their stars over everyone’s head, signaling peace ruling over the community. (Stars are also a feature of the Kingston parade and can be purchased from the Rhinebeck fifth grade’s Whale Watch as well as from a handful of stores in Rhinebeck and Kingston’s Rondout.)

Pat Sexton, a volunteer, said part of Market Street will be turned into a pedestrian mall, transformed into a kind of Medieval square: wandering magicians, tightrope walkers, a band performing on stilts, fire jugglers, Morris dancers, carolers, a band playing on stilts, Roger the jester, klezmer music, and a Mexican dance company called Chinelos, wearing elaborate costumes and masks, will perform. The nationally known group, Vanaver Caravan, and Saugerties-based puppet theater Arm of the Sea will present a piece that explores the various ways cultures utilize and celebrate light over the winter solstice. The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus will also put on a show.

After the parade, there will be a hoedown for families at the Rhinebeck Town Hall and a dance party in the courtyard for grownups. “It’s for everybody,” said Sexton, noting that various venues in town will present world, acoustic and holiday music.

In Kingston, on November 24, there will be a kind of preview, with performances at the Arts Society of Kingston, the Trolley Museum and outside Mariner’s Harbor, including the old timey country music of the Old Double E band and mariachis. The trolley will be running, and there’ll be a cookie decorating workshop at At Home antique store. A tree lighting will follow the children’s maritime parade.

The Sinterklaas celebration culminates in Rhinebeck on December 1. Check out the comprehensive website, www.sinterklaasrhinebeck.com, for details on this elaborate celebration. All events are free.

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