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Do You Know the History Behind the Sinterklaas Festival in Rhinebeck?


On Saturday, December 3, thousands of people flocked to the Village of Rhinebeck to take part in a one-of-a-kind holiday celebration. It was the largest, liveliest street party in Sinterklaas Festival history. Kings and queens carried royal scepters, musicians drummed while walking on stilts, jugglers tossed fire, and man-beasts prowled village streets, causing general mischief. A raucous and rowdy time it was.

Held annually on the first Saturday in December, the free festival celebrates Sinterklaas, a traditional Dutch holiday honoring a fourth-century bishop with a long, white beard and a tall, pointed hat who loved children. By most accounts, this goodly figure was the chief inspiration behind Santa Claus.

The highlight of the event was the Children’s Starlight Parade, featuring a dazzling procession of kings, queens, stars, seasons, and animals down Market Street. The festival capped off in a bonanza of pageantry as parade-goers strutted their stuff in the municipal parking lot.

Two of the “Seven Sisters” stars. Photo by Shantal Riley

Through the day, hundreds of kids picked through piles of beads, flowers, ribbons, and jewelry at the Rhinebeck Fire Department to decorate tree branches. They wrote down wishes for the children of the world on little pieces of paper, tying them to the branches. “They’re creating a branch that mirrors who they are,” said festival volunteer Rebecca Holt.

The festival is an adaptation to an age-old Dutch tradition.The branches symbolized switches, that once served as a warning to Dutch children. “I took the switches and turned them into royal scepters,” said festival founder and Artistic Director Jeanne Fleming. “Now, the children decorate them. I wanted to change the story to make it right for our community.”

In fact, it was that same mindfulness of the Dutchess County community that propelled Fleming to start the festival 30 years ago. She was challenged by a local retailer to come up with an event that would bring everyone together. Ultimately the idea of Sinterklaas came about, a non-denominational holiday event for children, based on Rhinebeck’s own heritage.

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Its Dutch roots are traced all the way back to the late 1600s, with the purchase of 2,200 acres of land from Sepasco and Esopus natives by a small group of Dutch traders. And with the Dutch came Sinterklaas.

The first “Old Dutch Christmas in Rhinebeck” was an initial success, but took a hiatus in the 1990s. Years later, Fleming and the festival returned with a vengeance. And since, it’s grown so popular that it drew more than 12,000 visitors last year. The reason behind its success? The festival is designed to be inclusive, offering something for everyone who attends, said Fleming, also the artistic director for the Village Halloween Parade in New York City. “Everybody gets to be part of the story.”

Sinterklaas takes the stage. Photo by Shantal Riley

Fleming and crew plan the festival year-round. In just a few weeks, the crew will meet to share festival stories and decide on next year’s honored animal.

This year, the honored animal was the owl, featured throughout the festival. A giant cuckoo clock sat in the village courtyard, while a live European eagle-owl put on a show at the Rhinebeck United Methodist Church.

Fleming hinted which animal she has in mind for next year. “I’m advocating for an ancient creature who was found in the Hudson Valley… One that’s tens of thousands of years old,” she said. Possibly one that may have even lived in Dutchess County. Do you have any idea what she’s referring to? Tell us in the comments below!


To learn more about the festival, visit Sinterklaashudsonvalley.com.

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