What is Sinterklaas?

Many people asked: what is this celebration that happens on early in December? Why have a special interest and pride in this time of year?

The answer: we are honoring our Dutch heritage by recreating customs that the settlers from Holland brought to the Hudson Valley. The Dutch people who came  to Rhinebeck over 300 years ago brought a celebration with them that was already a deeply rooted part of their traditions.

The ritual was simple enough. Each year in Rhinebeck, we celebrate Sinterklaas on the first Saturday in December, but in Holland the Dutch always celebrate on December 6. Mounted on a white steed, a town resident dressed up as Sinterklaas (that is, elegantly garbed in a bishop’s tall hat, red cape,  shiny ring, and jeweled staff), rides through town knocking on doors late at night. He would be accompanied by his long-time sidekick, the Grumpus. Also known as Black Peter, the Grumpus — a wild looking half-man, half-beast character — rattled chains and threatened to steal away the naughtiest children in his big black bag. And for those “less bad” he had switches for exacting lesser punishments! And for the good children — Sinterklaas and the Grumpus would deliver a bag of goodies.

Over the years, as towns developed and houses grew closer together, Sinterklaas’ ride turned into a Parade that still happens in Holland to this day, and is the most popular of all Dutch holidays.


Who was this Sinterklaas?

At the start, Sinterklaas was a real person. He was born in the 4th century in Myra, Asia Minor, where he became a bishop as a grown man. Little else is known about him—except that he loved children.

A story is told about Sinterklaas to illustrate this point. It is said that three little boys dined at a restaurant and, after eating their fill, informed the innkeeper that they could not pay their bill. To exact payment, the innkeeper chopped them up into little bits and cooked them in a stew.

Nicholas heard about the awful deed and came to the inn to find the boys boiling away in the pot. He told the innkeeper that if he, Nicholas, could find one little piece of each boy that was good, he would perform a miracle and bring them him back to life. Now, what child does not have at least one little piece of good in him? And, so Sinterklaas returned the boys to life and took them into his care.

There is also the story of the three poor sisters. They were the beautiful daughters of a poor peasant. The first was very blonde, the second had raven black hair, and the third wore auburn tresses. When they grew up they fell in love with three pleasant young men. But the sisters could not get married because they had no dowry. That made them very sad. One night, as Sinterklaas was out riding, he looked through a window and saw three lovely, but sad sisters. And he heard why they could not marry the young men of their choice. He went back to his palace and gave the Grumpus three little bags. In each were a hundred golden ducats. He asked the Grumpus to drop the little bags into the girls' shoes, and an hour later they were rich. They married the three nice young men and lived happily ever after! To this day children leave a carrot in their shoes hoping to attract Sinterklaas' attention and reward. Since then Sinterklaas (or St. Nicholas as he is also known) has become known as the patron saint of unwed maidens.

How this kindly 4th century bishop made his way from Asia Minor through Italy, Spain and all of Northern Europe by the 11th century where he is still honored today is hard to say, but by that time he become the patron saint not only of children and unwed maidens, but of sailors and the City of Amsterdam as well.

Association with Amsterdam goes back to the time of the Inquisition, which had spread to Holland in the Middle Ages. Rumor had it that there was a Nicholas who was Bishop of the Cathedral in Amsterdam. When the swarthy Spaniards came from Spain to trade with the Dutch, they gave passage to adults and children alike whose lives were threatened by the Inquisition against the Jews in Spain.

Sinterklaas Today in Holland

There is not a single family in Holland that does not in some way or another honor the old "Bishop" and his servant the Grumpus with a party, a small get-together or by going to somebody's else's house to celebrate. There may be many presents, or just a few, tables laden with traditional candles and cookies, or just a pot of hot chocolate. The house may be teeming with children, or with perhaps just a few grown-ups around the dining room table—but the Sinterklaas spirit is everywhere—one simply can't miss it. It is far and away the nicest, most wonderful and exciting festivity in the land!

In Amsterdam, on December 5th a ship carrying Sinterklaas arrives by boat from Spain where he spends the rest of the year. He is greeted by a whole group of Grumpuses. A million people come out to see his arrival and watch his triumphant parade through the streets of the city. The whole rest of the country watches on TV. There are special songs and pastries made for his arrival. In Rhinebeck, this year Sinterklaas will arrive at the Rhinecliff Dock at 4 pm on November 28th and ride up the hill to the Rhinecliff Hotel where children will be treated to a Dragon Play, music, and the Grumpus Dance. He will ride through Rhinebeck on the evenings of December 1st, 2nd and 3rd. And finally, he'll be seen in the Children's Starlight Parade on December 5th.

St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Santa Claus in the Hudson Valley

When the early Dutch settlers came to America, they naturally brought with them their venerated old bishop. St. Nicholas and their favorite holiday, Sinterklaas. Indeed, after landing in the New World, the Dutch explorers, led by Henry Hudson, built their first church on the island of Manhattan in 1642, dedicating it to Sinterklaas. When the British took control of New Amsterdam in 1664, they adopted the Dutch recognition of Sinterklaas and merged it with their own observance of the Winter Solstice, Father Christmas—the merry, roly-poly, Falstaffian figure in high boots. Eventually, these two old gentlemen commemorated in December, merged into one.

Over the next few generations, Sinterklaas found his way into American literature. In 1809, writer Washington Irving (a man who lived not far from Rhinebeck) created a jolly Sinterklaas for his popular Knickerbocker Tales. Then in 1822, an Episcopal priest named Clement Moore (who also lived near to Rhinebeck) wrote a lighthearted poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" which featured a jolly old elf, his descent down a chimney on Christmas Eve, and a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer (Odin's flying horse!) The Father Christmas image stuck, but he acquired a Dutch name—Santa Claus—a direct derivation from Sinterklaas.

America, a country of invention and opportunity, a land where everyone could write their own life's story, added the latest chapter to a tale that had begun in ancient times with Odin, a mythical figure embodying the archetype of The Good King, who rode through the night in the land of the reindeer doing good deeds for children.

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.

This year, the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery of the River that now bears his name, will be commemorated by Rhinebeck as part of its Sinterklaas Celebration!

Making the Celebration Our Own

Today in Rhinebeck, we celebrate Sinterklaas in both traditional and new ways.

Good children, bad children.

This idea always comes up in celebrations around this time of year. Naughty or nice. Coal or presents. Judgment. Right along side of the Sinterklaas legend there is the even more ancient story of the Bel Snickle, the Grumpus, the Rupelz, Shab, the Krampucz. A sort of scary character—who comes out of the wood and who is in marked contrast with the kindly Sinterklaas, the Good King. A leftover from a harsher time. And even though he is played by someone from the neighborhood, and even though he does not REALLY cart children away in his black bag or punish them with his birch rod that he carries, he is still there- a reminder that if you are not good, well…punishment will follow. In Rhinebeck, we turn that tradition upside down by turning a negative symbol into an empowering one.

What is the meaning of the Crowns and Branches that are made by and carried by the Children in the Parade? Since St. Nicholas loved children so much, it makes sense on his name day, that children—who at all other times of the year the least powerful people in the society—are turned into the most powerful for just one day. Children are crowned kings and queens!

The birch rod—the indispensable instrument of medieval education—in Rhinebeck is transformed by the power imagination and art into a symbol of empowerment and love. The birch rod becomes the Branch—the Royal Scepter—a symbol of creative power in the hands of today’s children.

And so, on this day in Rhinebeck children are raised up from being those least powerful to the most powerful for one glorious day! The rods are turned to Royal Scepters and the Children are crowned royalty for the day! On December 5th, there will be a bustling and beautiful workshop from 12:00–4:00 pm for children to create their Crowns and Branches at the Dutch Reformed Church. Hundreds of beautiful branches will be laid out alongside lots of beautiful glittery and fanciful materials—jewels, ribbons, glitter, lace, streamers, wonderfilm -- with which the children can create their Royal garb! At the end of the day each child has something to carry in the Parade and to take home with them. Each child will be asked to tie 3 WISHES in their branch—one for their family, for their community and for the World. Be sure to see the Wish Lady!

What are The STARS that Every Family Will Carry in the Parade? What is their purpose?

The STARS are what make Rhinebeck’s celebration unique from all other Sinterklaas celebrations. These STARS make families, friends and relations the active myth makers of our community and its future, for these are no ordinary stars!

From the moment you take possession of your star, you assume a key role in a community ritual. On the Sinterklaas Celebration Day (the first Saturday of December) hundreds of your neighbors, friends, and family will join in an illuminated pageant through the very heart of Rhinebeck.

You will carry your STAR in your own way--perhaps close to your chest and cradled with care, or held aloft dangling freely in the winter breeze. A gathering constellation will light the path for the many children who, bedecked with their crowns and branches of their own creation are the honored Kings and Queens of the Day. At the end of the procession, everyone will gather for the final ritual of the pageant, the moment you and your STAR have been waiting for. The Master of Ceremonies will call upon all those present to honor our children, our hope for the future, our joy of today.

He will ask you bow down on one knee to the children. At that you will bow down and hold your STAR at the children’s waist level elevating them for a brief moment, on a sea of stars above everyone in the community. Then you will be asked to stand again and raise your star above your heads – thus placing you, the children and the entire community in its proper place in the firmament—all of us as one and at peace under the stars. After the evening’s festivities are over, you take your star home with you to grace your hearth throughout the dark winter with the vivid memory—like a burning ember—of when we all came together to celebrate our children, our community, our lives and each other.

And then, as custodian of your communal star, you can bring it back next year, adding to an ever-expanding universe of stars, helping to nurture a Rhinebeck tradition.

This year the STARS are available through the 5th Grade WHALE WATCH—and are being sold to benefit the Whale Watch and to support Sinterklaas—find them in select stores and at various locations in Town on the day of Sinterklaas.

The Havdalah

Right before the Parade begins a special ceremony that takes place at the foot of the hill on West Market Street. Led by the children and folks from the Rhinebeck Hebrew School and Temple Emmanuel, this beautiful Jewish Ceremony marks the end of the Jewish Sabbath and opens up the secular time of The Sinterklaas Parade. The Havdalah Ceremony is a weaving together of all those in the community in a web of interdependence, symbolized by intertwined candles.

After the Parade the beginning of the Christian Sabbath starts with the Living Nativity at the Reformed Church.


Who’s Who in the Parade?

Sinterklaas on his white horse we already know.

The Grumpuses are his wild sidekicks who carry out Sinterklaas’ judgment on the children—either switches for the bad or candies for the good. But, our Grumpuses are people you know in the community who are candy men, there for joyous revels and to delight the children. The Grumpus is also the Bel Snickle in German culture. You can see an exhibit of a few of them courtesy of Abby Clark in the peep windows of Winter Sun & Summer Moon.

Some Bel Snickles.

Grandmother Earth on whom we all live. She’s the mother of us all, the Guiding Spirit of the Parade reminding us to take care of her.

The 4 Seasons -- the moods of Grandmother Earth. We especially honor Winter this time of year.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance: The most ancient Dance ever recorded, it is still danced today in the Town of Bromley in England. The deer horns in Bromley date back to the 11th century, and are believed to have been brought to England by the Norse. (Since there are no reindeer in England!). Coincidentally enough, the horns are stored in—where else?—St. Nicholas’ Church in Bromley and brought out once a year for a performance. There are 12 characters. Six carry the horns and are accompanied by a musician playing an accordion; Maid Marian (a man in a dress), the Hobby-horse, the Fool (or Jester), a youngster with a bow and arrow, and another youngster with a triangle. Traditionally, the dancers are all male, although in recent years girls have been seen carrying the triangle and bow and arrow. The pattern of the dance mimics the way in which a deer walks though the woods—in a figure 8 pattern—to the accompaniment of a haunting slip jig.

The version you will see performed by the Pokingbrook Morris Dancers is sometimes called the Royal Albert Horn Dance after the haunting tune that was commissioned at the Royal Albert Hall. Anthropologists have argued that this dance, which mimics a bowman killing a reindeer, was performed as a ritual to ensure a successful hunt. It is interesting to note that the Bushmen of the Kalahari also have ritual dances which mime a warrior killing its prey, while the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, which date to Paleolithic times 20,000 years ago, depict men wearing antler head-dresses being stalked by bowmen. So the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance may be a lot more ancient than presumed.

The Ballerina and Dog and the Carousel -- a child’s Toy Box writ large!

The Blue Dog -- some things have no explanation!

St. George and the Dragon: A Comic play about Good and Evil.

The Snow Geese each year a special animal is honored in the Parade -- IN 2009 it WAs the SNOW GOOSE who teaches us to fly high with good will toward all.

The Dancing Bears -- famous to Rhinebeck—who teach us to spend the winter in deep learning about ourselves, our family and the earth.

The Seven Sisters Stars from the cosmos that look down on us from afar and allow us to look up and dream.

Wild Women -- If you have Wild Men (The Grumpuses) you have to have Wild Women and thanks to Abby Saxon we do have a fantastic gaggle!

Music of all traditions: Klezmer, Bagpipe, Dixieland, Irish, Didgeridoo, Balkan, Ukrainian.

Creatures of the Forest: They all come out for us on this night­—see Odin surrounded by them in the ancient sculpture below.

Creatures from the Farm: The sheep, the cows, the rams, the horse. They join their wild brothers.

The Peace Dove­ -- Our wish for the world. The night ends with a wish for Peace in the world so that we will all live in community with each other, enjoying and celebrating our differences, hoping for Joy for All in this, our precious World.

The Illuminated Manuscript of Sinterklaas!

Back in January 2008 when the Sinterklaas Committee was just beginning to meet and ideas were flying around the room, Ronnie Citron-Fink had a brainstorm -- we HAD to make a book­ -- a GIANT book. So, idea in hand, Jeanne Fleming went out in search of the maker of such a Giant Book that would tell the story of Sinterklaas in a very special way for our children.

As Nadine Robbins tells it, “A few months ago I was approached by Jeanne Fleming to design and produce "one" oversize book telling the story of Sinterklaas. Now I don’t know Jeanne very well, but she is a special and creative person that I connected with right away. I couldn’t say no and found myself coming up with ideas on the spot. And then it just popped in my head. What about a pop-up book that is lit from inside?.

Magical and memorable, a cross between Harry Potter and an illuminated Medieval manuscript what was Jeanne wanted. So of course I challenged myself to put this book together having no idea what I was doing, With some help from some of Jeanne’s friends, James Gurney and Richard Prouse to create illustrations and Grace Gunning to cut out some copper and paper we came up with a plan. Grace, Molly Ahearn and I tested, cut, hammered, drilled, prototyped this book to death. There were incidents like when I dropped India ink on the pop-up of Sinterklaas or when the book fell on my face. Cut a few fingers, broke a nail or two, lost some sleep, glued fingers together. All in all a typical project.

Six prototypes later, the book was done. All of us who worked on this book at Namaro Graphic Designs and friends see this book as a gift for our community. It was a fabulous experience and boy did we learn a lot. It came out better than I ever imagined.

In 2009 we have made it even better with new lights from Andy Neal!

The Illuminated Book is on display for all to see at the Beekman Arms throughout the Holiday Season.

Dutch Treats!!

Did you know that “cookie” is a Dutch word? And that the first chocolate in America came from Holland? Not only did children in New Amsterdam (NYC) love the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, they also quickly came to love another tradition the Dutch brought to the New World: cookies!! The Dutch word was "koekje," and meant "little cake." The Dutch brought the "koekjes" to America in the 17th century and the word became "cookie." Much like Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. The first cookies were created by accident. Cooks used a small amount of cake batter to test their oven temperature before baking a large cake. Almost immediately the Dutch knew they had discovered something very, very good. With a little bit of sugar added, crackers became cookies! Before long, special cookies were being made for the Dutch’s favorite holiday­ -- Sinterklaas. These cookies are called Speculaas.

The Cookie Tree!

For the delight of all the children and in honor of this great cultural and culinary contribution of the Dutch, Jessica Bard, well-known local chef and the Creative Director of Culinary Affairs for Sinterklaas in Rhinebeck, is making a Giant Cookie Tree that will be on display in the Beekman Arms window throughout the holiday season. It will appear on December 1st.

This year we also have the beautiful Gingerbread House made by Master House Builder Diana Gang. This will be on display at The Rhinecliff on November 28th, the day Sinterklaas arrives by boat!

A Dutch Bakery Sampler

After the great Parade of St. Nicholas, the Dutch family goes home and seats themselves at a table laden with all the traditional sweets and bakery goods known since the days when 17th Century painters gave us their version of the feast. Large chocolate initials serve as place settings along with the so-called “lovers,” tall, crisp, dark brown pastry rather like gingerbread. A basket filled with mysterious packages stands close by and scissors are at hand.

Pastry Letter (blankeletter)

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup ice water
1 cup almond paste

Mix the butter and flour and add the water. Roll out the dough until thin, fold it, and roll it over again. Repeat this 3 times. Let it stand for about 5 minutes and repeat the whole process 3 times. Shape the dough into a long narrow strip, place the almond paste in the center, bring the edges together and make a roll. Form a letter from it and place it in the center of a baking tray. Cover the letter with beaten egg and water and bake it for 1/2 hour at 400 degrees. Frost with chocolate icing.

Dutch Speculaas (Spekulaas) Cookies

Traditional almond-spice (“windmill”) cookies of Holland

1 cup margarine (or butter)
1 cup brown sugar (firmly packed)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Cream margarine. Add sugar, spices. Cream until fluffy.
2. Add extract and 3 tablespoons milk, beat to blend.
3. Add flour and baking powder, a little at a time, blending well.
4. Cover dough lightly; chill for 3 hours or more.
5. Mold cookies in traditional Speculaas Molds
6. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 10-15 min.
Hint: If you have some loss of pattern during baking, try chilling the molded cookies for a few minutes before baking.

Chocolate Letters

At many Dutch Sinterklaas Eve parties, the very last surprise in Sinterklaas’ special burlap sack, are chocolate initials, the first letter of each person’s name.

There will be one for each person—the first given to the youngest child, then on up to the oldest person present. These letters are popular throughout the Sinterklaas season. The tasty treats may be found in shoes, left by Sinterklaas as he makes his rounds checking on children. These letters make special little Sinterklaas remembrances to enjoy with a cup of coffee or tea. The letters, in brightly colored boxes, are sold from around October 15th through December 5 only. Unsold letters aren’t marked down, rather, they are returned to the manufacturers to be melted down for other chocolate treats.

The custom of edible letters goes back to Germanic times when, at birth, children were given a runic letter, made of bread—as a symbol of good fortune. Schools in the Middle Ages used bread and chocolate letters to teach the alphabet. When the letter was learned and could be written well, a pupil could eat it up! Letters became associated with Sinterklaas in the 19th century, when a sheet was used to cover St. Nicholas presents. A bread dough letter, placed on top of the sheet, identified where a child’s gifts were located.

During the 1800s, advances in cocoa bean processing led to the production of chocolate letters. The Netherlands is the only place with a St. Nicholas chocolate initial letter tradition.

Look in the window of Samuel’s for the letters. You can buy one for your friends and family members.