In past years, the Sinterklaas activities kicked off on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend with a local volunteer dressed in ancient bishop’s garb arriving at the Rhinecliff dock by boat – ostensibly from his modern home in the Netherlands (although the Dutch themselves maintain that he arrives, for reasons now lost in the mists of myth, from Spain). Sinterklaas and his entourage would typically ride in a horseback procession through the town to a reception at the Rhinecliff Hotel featuring music, dance and a performance of a medieval play about St. George and the Dragon.
Alas, this first phase of Sinterklaas 2010 has been canceled due to cuts in the town’s budget for the event – another casualty of the recession. But there is still plenty to do, hands-on, in the week-and-a-half leading up to the main show scheduled for Saturday, December 4. The Sinterklaas Celebration Space – located upstairs at Montgomery Row, in Suite 17 at 6423 Montgomery Street (Route 9), accessible from Rhinebeck’s Garden Street Parking Lot – is open to the public in the afternoons every day leading up to the main event, except for Thanksgiving Day. Drop-in workshops for adults, teens and children bring the community together to build all the elements used in the town’s big Starlight Parade featuring Sinterklaas on his white horse on December 4. Volunteers are invited to dabble in paint, puppets, paper-mache, folk art banner and flagmaking under the guidance and inspiration of parade designers Jeanne Fleming, Sophia Michahelles and Alex Kahn (better-known as the masterminds behind New York City’s famously outrageous Halloween Parade, who maintain a float, prop, costume and maskmaking workshop on the Rokeby estate near Rhinebeck).
Children can come to the workshops to create their own stars, crowns and branches to carry in the Starlight Parade. The premise of this Rhinebeck tradition is that on St. Nicholas’ Day, children rule; adults must do them honor. Although at first glance it seems like a revisionist way of marking the holiday, in fact it’s a bit of cross-cultural blending of medieval European celebrations honoring the Patron Saint of Children with remnants of the old Roman Winter Solstice feast of Saturnalia – a day on which the social order was turned topsy-turvy and slaves could criticize their masters and order them around, in honor of the god Saturn, who overthrew his father Uranus and was in turn overthrown by his own son Jupiter.
That explains the crowns. The branches are held by the children like scepters, and were adopted in Rhinebeck are gentler substitutes for the rods of punishment for naughty children that were customarily wielded by the servants of St. Nicholas. These chastising characters – probably derived from traditions predating the introduction of Christianity to Europe – were known in different countries by such names as Krampusz, Knecht Ruprecht, Schmutzli or the Bel Snickle. In some places they were regarded as imps or demons with the power to carry off truly wicked children in a sack. In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas is usually accompanied by a servant named Zwarte Piet or Black Peter, whose dark skin is sometimes explained by the Moorish occupation of Spain and sometimes by his habit of delivering gifts via sooty chimney flues. But the Rhinebeck celebration dodges the potential racial implications of putting a black character in a servile role by assigning its Sinterklaas a pack of Grumpuses as sidekicks instead – unruly pranksters to be sure, but not in the business of abducting naughty kids.
If you think you’d like to participate in the artistic ferment leading up to next Saturday’s Starlight Parade and associated pageantry and entertainment in Rhinebeck, drop in at the Celebration Space above Montgomery row on Thursday and Friday from 2 to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 5 p.m. Hours for December 2 and 3 will be determined depending on needs yet unfulfilled for December. Special days and hours are available for groups; contact Pat Sexton at (845) 876-6880 or e-mail PLSexton@aol.com to make arrangements.
Finally, the big day of the Sinterklaas Celebration on December 4 gets underway at 10 a.m. and runs right up until midnight, with activities all around downtown Rhinebeck. There’s a fantastic gingerbread house by Diana Gang on view at the Rhinecliff Hotel and a giant pop-up book, with windows illuminated from within, on display at the Beekman Arms, along with a giant cookie tree by the Culinary Institute’s Jessica Bard. At various local establishments, you can buy traditional Dutch St. Nicholas’ Day sweets like pepernoten and spekulaas cookies and the chocolate-covered initials for their names that good Dutch children find in their shoes.
Masked and costumed characters of all descriptions will roam the streets as if it were Carnival, some of them juggling or walking on stilts. There are contests, a magic show, storytelling and performances of theatre, music and dance from many different traditions, including the eerie, ancient Norse/British hunting ritual of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance – guaranteed to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck! The early onset of darkness brings on the Festival of Lights, culminating in the Starlight Parade in which children don their crowns and carry their stars and scepters to accompany the sainted Bishop Nikolaos of Myra, who will doubtless prove still spry, gentle and regal even though his age now exceeds 1,700. For more details and specific times, check the event website at www.sinterklaasrhinebeck.com.