Last December we presented an interview with Amber Dorko Stopper and Janet Finnegar, who discussed with us their own newly-established DIY latter-days-of-autumn community fete, the Philadelphia Krampuslauf. Amber spoke briefly therein of yet another seasonal festival celebrated in her greater locality in early December over the last five years -the widely attended Sinterklaas Rhinebeck– and told us of its importance to her family and the influence it’s had on the Krampuslauf.
Sinterklaas Rhinebeck is a perfect example of what we mean by 21st century grassroots festal culture. Taking as its starting point the antique traditions of the area’s Dutch settlers, it does not stop there at a mere re-creation of customs meaningful to the people of some past time and place, but goes on to adapt them as materials of inspiration to the world of the present-day community and its own particular needs.
The festival’s namesake -Sinterklaas- is one of many European variants on the archetypal figure of wintertime festivity derived from the historical St. Nicholas of Myra that morphed in 20th century America into the icon of commercial Christmas we’ve known for decades as Santa Claus. With its roots in the region’s Dutch heritage but its creative expression firmly situated in the present and poised toward the future, the people of the Mid-Hudson Valley have reclaimed Sinterklaas as a symbol of cherished community values and developed their own unique rites by which to manifest them.
In the words of the Sinterklaas Rhinebeck website: “So, now, we in Rhinebeck will write our own version of this myth and enact it in our own way for our own time as we move away from the commercial Santa and back to the underlying beliefs that began the legend—The Good King, the Noble Soul, the one who brings light out of darkness, befriends the children and creatures, and inspires our souls. From time immemorial, Sinterklaas has been a touchstone –one by which we can come together in community, putting aside that which divides, and allowing us to focus on what brings us together– our humanity, our love for children, our hopes for the future.”
Here, Amber Dorko Stopper gives us further insight in this account of her family’s visit and particpation in this year’s festivities held a week before her own Krampuslauf in Philadelphia. We hope that perhaps next year Amber will do a full-fledged interview with the organizers for us (and if she doesn’t, yours truly the blog-meister most certainly will)!
By Amber Dorko Stopper
Rhinebeck, New York is a village located –as Rufus Wainwright sang of the Milbrook School– “deep in the heart of Dutchess County”. Rhinebeck has all the attendant magic to it that Wainwright sings of, but then again, I’m only ever in Rhinebeck when it is at its most magical. 2012 was the fifth year that Rhinebeck held its Sinterklaas Festival and all the events leading up to the Festival day and night (and what is better than a night parade?), yet it seems like something that has been happening for a hundred years.
In a way, it has. This contemporary festival honors the traditions of its Dutch settlers of 300 years ago, when on December 6th, Sinterklaas, with his bishop’s miter and jeweled staff – played by a resident of the town – would visit homes from door to door with treats for children. He was accompanied by the half-man/half-beast Grumpus, who had an array of creative punishments with which to threaten naughty children.
Last year my husband and our pair of three year-olds attended Rhinebeck’s Sinterklaas Day, and this year, we participated by carrying lanterns in the Children’s Starlight Parade.
The village of Rhinebeck has good bones; its people are lovely and helpful. The streets are clean (even explosions of confetti in the midst of the crowds seemed to quickly disappear). Not a sign of rowdy or inconsiderate behavior. If you were there, you were involved. For every minute of the day it was hard to tell who was a performer and who was a spectator. (Well, we were pretty certain that the man who was naked but for a kilt, juggling knives and flaming torches on a tightrope was a performer.) We did not duplicate a single activity between 2011’s festival and 2012’s (other than the Crowns and Branches workshop, because you always need new crowns and branches), but there were still things that we missed.
Hitting the center of town around ten AM for a good parking spot is worth doing, and you will not have one bored moment between then and six PM when the Childrens’ Starlight Parade commences. Walk the streets of town, which is full of shops (including a five and ten where the racks of charming vintage Christmas cards are not reprints, but just pristine, half-a-century-old cards). On corners, in parking lots, and right in the middle of the street, brass bands, stiltwalkers, baby goats in Christmas dresses will slow your progress to the next thing you planned to get to (an amazing marionette show, an accomplished storyteller, the sort-of-charming but sort-of-grouchy Belsnickle and his violin, dancers from many lands) but it all starts to blur together into one big, happy, coats-on,-coats-off, more-hot-chocolate-and-another-cookie-for-energy day. There are not enough of those. My kids remembered from last year and looked frantically this year for the Pocket Lady, a woman whose multicolored felt cloak opens to reveal tiny pockets with a wrapped gift in each – for any child. (A reminder, too, of just how happy a small plastic horse with no LEDS or sound features or even movement can make a little kid.)
This year, as parade volunteers, we tromped up a high hill in town to the library, where all those planning to carry lanterns or puppets were to convene. We were met at the mouth of the parking lot by a silent, glittering winter spirit (really…this is how it goes in Rhinebeck) and were eventually led to our lanterns, Mexican faroles (which unlike many of the other illuminated features of the parade were not lit with LEDs, but with flame). My husband Ben was put in charge of one of two lighters and told not to light them too soon; most of the other farole-bearers were young teenage girls who, in the forty-five minutes or so that we waited to step off, were extremely anxious to get their lanterns lit and were very sure my husband was being far too economical about his timing. Our four year-old daughter had a fit of backstage nerves, in the looming dark, and set off on a crying jag; giant puppets around us tried to soothe her. My four year-old son, feeling a certain position of power in being the kid who was handling it all better, took hold of a farole.
When you are in a parade, you see far less of it than you do when you are standing to the side watching it. We hadn’t gone more than a few yards when an organizer ran over to us and said, “Faroles are supposed to be behind the cows!” And a bunch of teenagers dressed as cows ran and stood in front of us. So for most of the parade, we saw the backs of cows. Directly behind us were the chinelos, the costumed Mexican dancers we had admired the previous year – there seems to be a well-represented Mexican community in Rhinebeck that is seamlessly integrated aesthetically into the parade, which might also have contained Diwali dancers, but I only heard this from enthusiastic passersby and never saw them myself.
As we came down the big hill as part of the procession, our daughter was mesmerized at the crowds to either side of us. Behind the chinelos, a group of girls shouted cheers: “WHEN I SAY ‘SINTER’, YOU SAY ‘KLAAS’! SINTER!” “KLAAS!” “SINTER!” “KLASS!”
Many in the parade crowd clutched their own large, illuminated paper stars and followed along with the parade, which made its final turn into a small lot where a stage had been erected. As we ended the procession, each group walked to the bright stage where Sinterklaas himself, along with his white steed, and the sparkling winter spirit, acknowledged us in turn. Our children blew out the candles in the faroles, too tired at that point to attend the star ceremony or the hoedown following the parade, and we had dinner in a nearby diner.
Our daughter, in retrospect, had some deep thoughts about the hard work it takes to make “fun” happen. Sometimes you are cold. Sometimes there is waiting. It is worth it, the cold and the waiting. At the Sinterklaas parade in 2011, she had broken down crying as well while waiting for it to arrive, but came home this year wanting to watch the videos of last year’s parade, where she is clearly heard to scream out, down by my elbow, “MOM! NOW I’M HAPPY!” as llamas festooned with holly tromped by.
I cannot imagine the effort that goes into the coordination of the Sinterklaas festivities in Rhinebeck, but one imagines that if this village can work well enough together to pull of this kind of beauty and sweetness (with no licensed characters – imagine!), that it very likely feels like a good place to live the rest of the year as well. We put this on the calendar as soon as they announce the dates now, and I can’t ever see us not going. Both times we have visited, people have exclaimed that we have come from so far (Philadelphia); and they seem so honored and pleased. We love to be part of it and are so thankful to have it woven into our family’s history while our kids are so young still. As magical as it is for me, I cannot even imagine the building blocks of belief –in community, in beauty, in goodness and magic– it’s creating in our children!
To learn LOTS more about the old and new traditions of the Sinterklaas Rhinebeck, go to: www.sinterklaasrhinebeck.com
Many thanks to Douglas Baz for the use of his photographs. We hope to use many more in next year’s interview!