Sinterklaas Brings Dutch Tradition and Christmas Revelry to Rhinebeck

The story of how one woman helped put Rhinebeck on the map as one of the country’s most “Christmassy” towns.

Sinterklaas. Photo courtesy of Dutchess Tourism

Dive into the culture of Rhinebeck’s Sinterklaas, a traditional Dutch Christmas festival and celebration with live music, parades, and more.

Back in 1985, following the move of the beloved Rhinebeck Craft Fair from the Dutchess County Fairgrounds to Massachusetts, a group of residents met to discuss a new event for the village. Rhinebeck resident Jeanne Fleming, whose events experience includes a long-running stint as the director of New York City’s Village Halloween Parade and the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, seemed like the perfect person to lead the initiative.

She assembled a hundred people of all ages “from kids to the elderly,” businesses, churches, and government officials and asked them what sort of event they wanted to see.

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After many rounds of voting, Fleming was surprised: “People wanted an event around the holidays,” she says, “for children, and based around their Dutch heritage.” But about what? She eventually discovered the story of Sinterklaas, a Dutch Christmas tradition that celebrates children.

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 extremely popular and beloved.

Fleming altered aspects of the medieval celebration, removing all references to the punishment of naughty children and transforming the character of Zwarte Piet – traditionally performed by an actor in blackface – into the kinder, cuddlier, Grumpus.

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Fleming put on what was then entitled An Old Dutch Christmas in Rhinebeck for eight years, but a lack of funds and her young son’s cancer diagnosis eventually made it unfeasible. And in fact, her son played an important role in the festival’s 2008 return as Sinterklaas: “I had always wanted him to see it,” says Fleming, who notes that her son has been cancer-free since 2011.

But bringing it back came with some qualifications: support from local merchants, outreach to non-Christian communities, and the full participation of the Village of Rhinebeck.

Fleming sees it as a testament to not only the season, but the entire community: “every single local group, every church, is involved.” More than anything, however, it’s about the kids. “We come together,” she says, “and celebrate all of our children together.”

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This year’s celebration takes place on December 4. Many of Rhinebeck’s most notable small businesses, shops, and art destinations get in on the fun. Upstate Films screens holiday flicks while brass bands serenade the town. The all-day event culminates in the Starlight Parade at 6 p.m.

Related: Where to See the Brightest Holiday Lights in the Hudson Valley

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