Sturgeons, polar bears, and Grumpuses — Oh My! Mark your calendar for the first Saturday in December and be transported to a world that’s part whoville, part Mardi Gras and steeped in ancient Dutch tradition.
The Sinterklaas Festival, held in the historic village of Rhinebeck, is a day-long celebration with a schedule of events including puppet shows, storytelling, acrobats, live music, dancing, and the Crown and Branches Workshop where children can make their own crowns and branches and be transformed into a king or queen for the day.
All around town families are enchanted by a host of costumed characters that help tell the story of Sinterklaas. Some of the characters that are sure to put a smile on your face include the Polar Bear with his trainer and musical sidekick, the wild Grumpuses, Mother Holly floating among the crowds, and The Pocket Lady who represents Sinterklaas’ symbol of generosity. All of the performers, organizers, and workers are volunteers.
Rich in history
The Sinterklaas Festival is a Dutch tradition that honors a 4th century bishop named Nicholas Sinterklass who was born in Asia Minor. Nicholas was depicted with a signature long white beard, a tall pointed hat and was known to love children. More than 300 years ago when the Dutch settled in Rhinebeck, they brought this tradition with them. A town resident would dress up in a tall bishop’s hat, red cape, shiny ring and jeweled horse to ride through the village knocking on doors late at night. Sinterklaas was accompanied by a Grumpus, a wild half-man, half-beast creature. If you were good, they left a bag of treats, if you were not good, the Grumpus would threaten to take you away in his big black bag while he rattled his chains menacingly.
The festival goes on regardless of the elements so be prepared. The activities and workshops are all free, some are held indoors and others are held outdoors. The event is stroller friendly and focused in the center of town.
A full day adventure
A detailed list of parking can be found on the website. Once you are parked go directly to the Ask Me Ladies table which is located at the Beekman Arms. There you will receive a schedule of the day’s events and can ask questions of the knowlegeable volunteers. You’ll want to purchase an illuminated star that’s sold here and in some of the shops around town, or on the website in advance for $12 plus shipping. The Sinterklass illuminated star is used as a prop in the Children’s Starlight Parade and Star Ceremony, a delightful ritual that honors children.
There are many great restaurants as well as local organizations selling hot chocolate, snacks, and coffee throughout town. Be sure not to miss the fresh hot apple cider donuts, this outdoor stand can typically be found by the toy store.
We like to take a break and sit down for an early dinner at 4 p.m., there are a few restaurants that accept reservations, but not many on the festival day, so if you have something specific in mind, call in advance.
The events happening all day are wonderful, but the showpiece is the parade that starts at 6 p.m. The parade route begins by the Starr Library and ends in the municipal lot of Market Street. Any place in between is a good viewing spot, but be sure to get there early as the sidewalks get crowded. We usually stake our spots at 5 p.m. to get an unobstructed view.
All of the performers take part in the parade alongside a host of whimsical floats. Street vendors walk among the crowds with snacks and toys for sale, so be sure to have cash on hand.
At the end of the parade children are invited to march to the municipal lot where the Star Ceremony begins. There’s a final performance that includes fire juggling, sing-alongs, and festive camaraderie. Sinterklaas delights and amazes the young as well as the young-at-heart. Take a little piece of that enchantment home with you while you remember just how good it feels to believe.
Holly Freehill is a freelance writer who has enjoyed Sinterklass with her family for many years.
When You Go …
The Sinterklaas Festival
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Date: Saturday, Dec, 7, 2019