On December 6th, Rhinebeck, New York, concluded a weeklong festival called "Sinterklaas" that reenacted a Dutch tradition celebrating the arrival of good ol' St. Nicholas who-- accompanied by his faithful half-man/half-beast sidekick called the "Grumpus"--rewarded good people with gifts of charity and candy. The festivities began on Saturday, November 29th, with the faux St. Nick's Hudson River arrival by boat to the Rhinecliff dock followed by a march to the Rhinecliff Hotel, and a spirited performance of the classic St. George and the Dragon drama at the establishment. From December 1st through the 3rd, the town began accenting its streets with original paintings, the artwork mostly supplied by local school students and teachers.
Each day after dark, Sinterklaas rode though the streets with the loyal Grumpus by his side, reminding everyone of the Main Event as well as all of the town's related activities that were to occur on the coming Saturday. That day finally appeared, and its festivities started with daylong craft fairs, storytelling by the popular Jonathan Kruk, bear dress-ups, magic shows, a snake handler, horn dancing, a nativity scene (complete with live petting zoo sheep), a Havdalah Circle led by Rabbi Yael Romer's daughter, Shai Romer, performances by The Ukrainian singers, The Zagnut Circus Orkestar, and The Bond Street Theater Coalition Stilt Band. A highlight of the day was the decorating of liberated tree branches and gold paper crowns by young children and teens with beads, sparkle paint, buttons, feathers, streamers, glitter, and other makeshift ornaments to carry in that evening's procession. Finally, at around 6:00 pm, families, friends and the rest of the townsfolk that had gathered patiently on this cold night for the Children's Starlight Parade (aka Sinterklaas Parade) were unleashed. It was a gentle Mardi Gras of sorts, a choreography of jugglers, stiltwalkers, giant puppets, an intricate paper dragon, bagpipes, dancers, and a brigade of Grumpuses throwing candy ultimately followed by Sinterklaas on his gallant white horse. Then all onlookers joined the parade, bearing lit, white cardboard stars, bells, colorfully spruced-up tree branches, ornate, make-shift crowns, and an unlimited amount of energy and pride. The events concluded with the Starlight Grand Finale Pageant that featured dancing bears, fire juggling, horn dancing, and performances by local groups such as The Woodstock Renaissance Singers, Creatures from the Woods, The Magic Minstrels, and much more.
A year in the planning, this Rhinebeck celebration was coordinated expertly and whimsically behind the scenes by "celebration artist," Jeanne Fleming, mostly known for her super-organizing abilities around holiday festivals (credits include past Halloween parades in NYC). The town's reactivated Sinterklaas tradition (dormant for many years) was an over-the-top success with turnout beyond expectations, partly due to visitors from neighboring Redhook and Woodstock ballooning the parade's girth beyond last year's more modest attendance. If you have never experienced a town fully immersed in celebration--that would be most of us--this was something magnificent to observe and participate in, just a smile away from Whoville with a hint of "It's A Wonderful Life." Certainly, Rhinebeck's Chamber of Commerce couldn't have been unhappy about this convergence of artistic displays stemming from various cultural influences, the old Dutch Sinterklaas tradition, and the ringing of local cash registers (though there were a Grumpus or two who protested that the festivities seemed too pagan with a bit too much "magic" in the air). Overall, everyone was thrilled about the achievements that their community accomplished, their holiday season having gotten one incredible launch.
After experiencing the majesty of something this well-deployed, one can't help but want this degree of festiveness to proliferate everywhere, not just in one small town in upstate New York. Sadly, much of this country's townships can't really allocate the time or resources, though, apparently, this festival didn't require a lot of money. Also, in some places, a revival of primal winter traditions wouldn't exactly be their cup o' nog. But, if your town can handle such a holiday--one that mixes the spirit of Christmas, Channukah, Winter Solstice, and whatever else you've got--this is your model. There could be worse than whole communities joyfully gathering to celebrate each other's company a couple times a year. Regardless, our children and their children most likely will choose celebrations such as the above over strictly religious observances, so there's a shot that someday, "Sinterklaas" (or something like it) will be comin' to your town after all.
Now, if you had the opportunity to talk with Sinterklaas--known to be quite the music freak--he might have a thing or two to say about all of those Christmas tunes being bandied about in his (and the Little Guy's) name. There are many songs he probably would endorse whole-heartedly and others he'd have his Grumpus throw in his big black bag never to be heard from again. One can only imagine what those titles would look like and exactly why he picked them. Gee, if only such discriminating lists existed somewhere, somehow (cue harp and SNL dream sequence screen distortions)...
Sinterklaas' Top Eleven Christmas Songs:
1. John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir / "Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)" - relates to the topic, was politically active in Europe, knows not to cross Yoko
2. Elton John / "Step Into Christmas" - left Bernie Taupin under Elton's tree in the '60s, shares wardrobe designer
3. Beck / "Little Drum Machine Boy" - helps him get his holiday groove on, though Thomas Dolby would like that colorfully lit drum thing he concocted for his longform video back
4. Cheech & Chong / "Santa Claus & His Old Lady" - it's nice someone wrote a song about Sinter and his mother
5. Martin Mull "Santafly" - Sinter's fly and he knows it
6. Elvis Presley / "Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me" - the babe was too hot for returning, Mr. Klaas instead brought him a nice German Sheppard
7. Daryl Hall & John Oates / "Jingle Bell Rock" - only heard the Daryl Hall recording, thinks the John Oates version is an urban myth
8. James Taylor / "River" - to this day, Sinter and Mrs. Klaas occasionally do very un-Christmas-like things during "Handy Man"
9. The Vienna Boys' Choir / "One Star In The Night" - if someone wanted to gift Sinter (hint, hint, major label licensing departments?), he'd love a CD (or download, he's not picky) of this Rankin/Bass classic that is still unavailable to this day
10. Vince Guraldi / "Christmas Time Is Here" - everyone's recorded this song except that beagle who's too busy messin' with a pile o' weed...or is that Woodstock?
11. The Carpenters / "Merry Christmas Darling" - thinks this is what angels sound like
Sinterklaas' Eleven "Are You Kiddin' Me?" Christmas Songs:
1. José Feliciano / "Feliz Navidad" - best used during Guantanamo interrogations
2. Paul McCartney / "Wonderful Christmastime" - it's more than silly love songs people have had enough of
3. Wham! / "Last Christmas" - Andrew Ridgeley's speed metal solo re-record rules
4. The Singing Dogs / "Jingle Bells" - see #1, and there needs to be a law barring all animals, especially dogs, cats, and goats from ever attempting this again
5. The Chipmunks with the music of David Seville / "The Chipmunk Song" - hey, they're now all cool and rappy, that's terrific--see #s 1 and 4
6. Gene Autry / "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" - never bought the dude's whole "Aren't I special, I'm a singing cowboy" schtick, thinks the Smithereens version kicks ass
7. Brenda Lee / "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" - any girl who sings like that kid who caught Sinter kissing his mom creeps the big guy out
8. Jimmy Boyd / "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" - jeez, this kid is everywhere
9. Bobby Helms / "Jingle Bell Rock" - this completes our '50s (and late '40s) now traditional Christmas trashing
10. Burl Ives / "A Holly Jolly Christmas" - and that abominable snowman in the TV show didn't eat him because...?
11. The Beach Boys / "Little Saint Nick" - by the 350th time you hear this record, it sounds just as fresh as that 250th time
And as a bonus holiday treat...
The Grumpus' Top Eleven Christmas Songs:
1. Bing Crosby & David Bowie / "Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth" - he likes Bing's approach to child rearing and dreams of dating one of Bowie's Diamond Dogs
2. The Everly Brothers / "Christmas Eve Can Kill You" - you can't fault a Grumpus for liking a song that celebrates efficiency
3. Red Peters / "You Ain't Getting' S*** For Christmas" - what he secretly wants to whisper to kids when Sinter ain't lookin'
4. Spinal Tap / "Christmas With The Devil" - doesn't believe in the devil, but if he did, would lose Sinter in a heartbeat
5. The Kinks / "Father Christmas" - the Kinks had the Grumpus at "candy," though all that snark and punk didn't hurt
6. Elmo & Patsy / "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" - afterwards, the reindeer had his way with Grandma then ate her before offing her offspring, making this the Grumpus' favorite holiday story
7. Bruce Springsteen / "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" - this guy sounds like he could go primal on Sinter, the Grumpus wants to forge a secret alliance as a precaution
8. Band Aid / "Do They Know It's Christmas?" - the Grumpus thinks this is a sweet drink from a packet, don't say anything
9. 'NSYNC / "You Don't Have To Be Alone (On Christmas)" - truth be known, the Grumpus wants a bromance with Justin Timberlake
10. Michael Bolton / "Our Love Is Like A Holiday" - useful for terminating every holiday party
11. Nat King Cole / "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)" - with all that roasting on an open fire and toe-nipping, the Grumpus believes this song conveys the true spirit of Christmas