Road Trip: Sinterklaas is Comin’ to Town
A fairy tale:
A town was going through a time of trial, as towns often do when they grow. Newcomers were impacting the outcomes of elections, and some even took exception to the quasi-religious celebrations that took place seasonally in their children’s new schools. For their part, the old timers resisted change, though eventually they were forced to give in. Everyone was sore.
The wise leaders of the town decided that a festival was needed to bring the town together. As luck would have it, living in this town was a festival magician, a woman who had orchestrated some of the greatest festivals in the world. She knew just what to do.
Some years before, she had been pressed by the town leaders with a similar request. She had studied the town’s history and learned that there was a great legacy that had been long forgotten. But at the time, she couldn’t persuade anyone that it was a good idea to revive it. To the leaders, it seemed too foreign; they wanted something more conventional. The festival magician wondered if, perhaps, the time was ripe. Even the old timers were not quite as set in their ways as they once had been, and, besides, the leaders were desperate. Something foreign might just do the trick. This time they agreed to give it a try.
The festival magician knew that the warring factions in the town had one thing in common: they loved their children above all else. She had an idea, but when she told it to the leaders, they said, “Nobody will do it.” Nonetheless, they let her try. First she got everyone’s attention by gathering the whole town together to witness a wild, noisy, beautiful ceremony that entailed a boat, a bearded man in a costume and a horse. It was so impressive, everyone got in the festival mood. Then a week later, there was a great parade, just as impressive, and at its culmination, there was a ceremony—the very one the leaders had said no one would want to participate in. The magician got all the grown-ups in the town to kneel down before all the children who had marched in the parade. Everyone did, and the sight was so stirring, the symbolism so powerful, everyone wept.
In a fairy tale, this would be where it says, The End. But this is real life. Sinterklaas, the Rhinebeck festival that last year blew the minds of the thousands who attended, starts this weekend with the arrival of the man himself (played, appropriately enough, by a woman) by boat at the Rhinecliff dock.
The festival magician, Jeanne Fleming, a longtime Rhinebeck resident and veteran event art director and organizer (the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, the re-opening of the Statue of Liberty, the opening of the Walkway Over the Hudson, etc.), has a degree in Medieval history from Bard. She knew that the 15th-century Dutch Roman Catholic Bishop on whom the legendary Sinterklaas is partly based, had, during the Inquisition, protected his own diverse population and had sheltered foreign blacks and Jews, and their orphaned children. She knew that, in early New York, the word Sinterklaas had eventually became anglicized into Santa Claus as the English emerged as the dominant culture, and that in time, for convenience sake alone, Santa Claus’s early-December children’s festival had been merged with one later in the month celebrating the birth of Christ. Fleming shared what she knew—that Sinterklaas is the champion of all children—with some of the region’s Jewish leaders, who passed it on to their own communities. That accomplished, the rest—the elaborate arrival ceremony in a boat made to look, this year, like a goose, the parade, the giant puppets, the children’s crowns and sceptors (made from “gilded” switches, the sort with which “naughty” children of yore got spanked)—for Fleming, all in a day’s work.
The Arrival at the Rhinecliff Dock & Rhinecliff Hotel
November 28 @ 4 p.m.
Day-Long, Town-wide Celebration & Starlight Parade at Dusk
Saturday, December 5, 10 a.m. - 11 p.m.
For more on the history, click on Read the Whole Story on the Sinterklaas website, for a series of articles by “the magician,” Jeanne Fleming.