Step aside, Santa Claus. Sinterklaas is on his way to the Hudson Valley.
Though both figures are related and are based on the legendary Christian bishop of the fourth century, Nicholas, patron saint of children, Sinterklaas became a local presence back when New York was first settled by the Dutch. According to historical lore, Nicholas earned his sainthood after rescuing youths from persecution. He was also known as Nicholas the Miracle Worker. In addition to his historical role as the protector of children, Nicholas/Sinterklaas also watches over sailors and unwed maidens. To this day in the Netherlands, the arrival of Sint-Nicolaas on December 6 is one of the most anticipated and celebrated calendar events of the year.
So what does it have to do with the valley?
A Local Holiday . . .
“Sinterklaas might seem like an international holiday, but it is actually a local holiday,” says Jeanne Fleming, the artistic director and leading creative manager behind the annual celebrations in Kingston and Rhinebeck. Not only was the celebration brought over by some of the region’s earliest settlers, but it was also one of the first opportunities for new Americans of all beliefs and backgrounds to connect. As a non-denominational and un-English event, Sinterklaas Day placed the focus on children, the future leaders of America, and allowed the settlers to start fresh.
The Dutch tradition as it currently exists within the Hudson Valley came to life around thirty years ago when Fleming planned the first “Old Dutch Christmas” in Rhinebeck. Since then, it has evolved into a much lauded event that draws revelers from far and wide. It has existed in its current format in Rhinebeck for ten years and in Kingston for seven. The partnership between the river cities reflects the continued tradition in Europe, where Sinterklaas travels every year from Spain to the Netherlands.
. . . Where Creativity Rules
“It’s not a commercially devised holiday, it’s based on creative ideas,” Fleming explains. She has a point. Innovation powers the Sinterklaas festivities, which kicked off in October with a series of workshops to raise money and excite support for the culminating weekends. Between mask-making get-togethers, painting parties, and crafting groups, locals have been hard at work preparing for the big days.
On Saturday, November 25, Sinterklaas himself will “depart” Kingston during the send-off celebration. The full day event is packed to the brim with family friendly activities. Children can decorate tiaras and scepters during the “Crowns and Branches” workshop before hopping to storytelling, dance lessons, musical performances, and the waterfront parade. During the march, little ones have the chance to stride in their regal finery and say farewell to Sinterklaas when he sets off for Rhinebeck across the Hudson.
One week later, the Dutch St. Nicholas touches down in Rhinebeck for the grand festival. On Sataurday, December 2, visitors can greet Sinterklaas as he arrives in the Hudson Valley’s Holland for a day of merrymaking and warm-hearted community celebrations. While the group workshops and citywide parade are top to-dos during the fest, the number of events, sales, and specials scattered throughout town make Sinterklaas Day one for the books.
In both celebrations, odes to local traditions figure prominently into the schedule of events.
A Dancing Bear, Elephants – And More
“This year it’s kind of cool,” Fleming says. She explains how she and her team always look to build upon the success of the previous year, both in terms of educating participants about the past and ensuring a fun day for all. As for local education, 2017 marks the introduction of celebrity character Rip Van Winkle into the mix. As a Dutch-American personality crafted by famed Hudson Valley author Washington Irving, Van Winkle is a fitting addition to the parade’s ranks. He will join time-honored personalities like the Pocket Lady, who carries surprise gifts for curious children, and the Dancing Bear, a charming polar bear who makes special appearances around town.
The bear is not the only animal in attendance this year. In both the Kingston and Rhinebeck hooplas, expect to see elephants popping up everywhere you go. As part of the annual tradition, the Sinterklaas planning committee chooses an honored animal to feature during the festivities. While past critters include the hummingbird, the owl, and the fox, this year’s four-legged friend is sure to have a larger-than-life presence. Children can wear elephant masks decorated by crafty volunteers and see if they can spot the many pieces of elephant artwork that line the streets and figure into the parades.
All in all, the Sinterklaas weekends are the perfect way to celebrate the Hudson Valley’s past and kick off the holiday season. With over 250 entertainers in town for musical performances, dance acts, magic shows, and more, Sinterklaas Days are not just a celebration of St. Nicholas, but an honoring of of local creatives as well.
You may not have to watch out for Santa Claus just yet, but you better watch out a parking space. The Rhinebeck fest in particular draws a large crowd, so plan your arrival into town accordingly. Whether you attend one or both occasions, make sure to invite the young ones and the young at heart. With community, history, and joy at its core, Sinterklaas Day truly is a celebration for all.
Sinterklaas Send-Off Celebration, November 25, 11:00 a.m., Kingston
Sinterklaas Festival Day, December 2, 10:00 a.m., Rhinebeck
Learn More at SinterklaasHudsonValley.com