Winter Solstice: Christmas Revels

Christmas has always had a strong attachment for Linda.  While my parents were spiriting us boys off to Lake Tahoe to ski for the Christmas vacation, Linda’s parents were hosting gatherings of friends for family cheer.  Guess their eggnog was livelier than ours.  When you marry, you bring together traditions and forge new ones.  For me, this meant finding new Christmas CD’s every year to present to Linda just after Thanksgiving.  This year, I placed about 150 into the CD juke box, 20 in the cars for holiday commuting and driving, and another dozen downstairs for slumbering by.  About the time we married, Linda found a Revel’s CD, “Wassail, Wassail”

While listening to this recording of traditional American carols, she read the liner notes about the Revel’s groups.  There she learned that Washington, D.C. had a local musical chorus, The Washington Revels, which performed an annual Christmas program at the Lisner Auditorium each December.  Time to wassail!

The Children's chorus

Each year the Washington Revels, along with their affiliated organizations in ten cities around the USA, perform music of the season from various cultures from around the world.  The Washington Revels brings the volunteer chorus of about 75 children, teens and adults, plus  chore, professional ensembles related to each tradition which they explore.  Behind the scenes are about as many crew members constructing sets, costumes,  lighting effects, etc.  One of the delights of attending their performances over the past 15 years, is to watch the children grow each year from the children dance group, to the youth chorus, and into college.  In our transient society, where the pop fashion determine who are rising and falling stars, it is comforting to see people use their talents from year to year for the joy of doing so, not for the ego-centered drama of seeing who gets the axe each week.

Part of the mission of the Revels groups is to explore and present music, dance, and folk stories from different cultures and time periods.  The 18th and 19th centuries in the Great Britain and the North America have rich histories in providing us with Christmas carols.  France, Italy, and Germany are easy to add with familiar melodies, even when the original language lyrics are sung, rather than Anglicized renditions.  And, the circles out from these starting points have brought us productions on Scandinavian winter solstice traditions to the themes of the Silk Road.  Deeper explorations have occurred in their programs on Medieval Ireland, Renaissance Florence, French Canadian fur trappers, and the migration of African Americans and Appalachian settlers from the south to northern urban centers early in the 20th century.  Different Revels groups will develop these programs over several years, preform them for their communities, and then put them into circulation to other Revels’ groups over the next few years.


This year’s Washington Christmas Revels program, Andalusian Treasures, was developed and presented in Portland, OR last year.   The program reconstructs the traditions of the Jewish, Arabic, and Spanish cultures which mixed in the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th to 15th centuries.  Another feature of Revel’s productions is that there is often a story line that brings the music, dance, poetry, and tales together.  In Andalusian Treasures, Joha, a fool, and Don Juan, a swashbuckling romantic, stumble into a treasure vault under the city of Cordoba.  They are actually trying to escape from a cafe owner to whom they owe money for their meal.  As they explore the vault, the encounter the arts which are associated with different artifacts.  Touching various objects brings the music of the Sephardic Jews, the Persians, and the Iberian natives.  Touching manuscripts brings to life the poets and philosophers Maimonides, Averroes, and Egeria, who speak for each of their traditions, and who challenge Joha and Don Juan to discover what is the true treasure among the jewels.

Part of the mission of the Revels is to engage people in the arts.  Beyond providing the volunteers an opportunity to participate in a production, each performance pulls in audience members.  This can be in group singing and rounds, speaking and singing to the audience, to selecting the Lord or Lady of Misrule, and the intermission break Lord of the Dance.  The Twelve Days of Christmasoften shows up in Revels productions for

Practicing audience rounds during intermission

audiences to sing along with, but not this year.  For those who are into Christmas, they would have recognized the chorus of A vint-i-cinc de desember, “Fum, Fum, Fum”.  We also learned some new winter tunes, El desember congelat (Cold December flies away) and Shalon Chaverim/Assalam wa aleiku (Peach, friends, until we meet again), Siete modos de guisar las berenjeans (Seven ways to cook eggplant), sung in English, Ladino, and Arabic.  Regular Revelers will know the latin song Dona nobis pacem (Give us peace), and the final song of every Revels production, Susses Mummers Carol, during which the chorus and crew encircle the audience from the center of the stage to the top of the balcony aisle.

Our Lord of Misrule, with Joha and Don Juan

The Lord or Lady of Misrule is a European tradition of having one of the commoners be the “lord” of the manor on Christmas day.  He or she would be in charge of pranks and other holiday silliness.  At the Revels, cast members go into the audience and persuade someone, usually who looks like this is his or her first production, to come on stage, be crowned, and to recite some ridiculous proclamations.   Another Revels tradition is the singing of the Lord of the Dance,

Lord of the Dance fills the lobby

lyrics set to the Shaker melody Simple Gifts and to the dance steps of Morris dance.  After the final verse, the dancers and chorus stream off the stage, taking the hands of those sitting along the aisles to forms chains of dancers who fill the aisle and snake around until the lobbies are filled.  All sing the chorus “Dance, then, wherever you may be…”  For those who are gregarious, you have a chance to make several news friends.  For those who are shy, you can dance your way to be first into the bathrooms.

Curtain call

A final Revels’ tradition is the recitation of the poem The Shortest Day.  Regardless of culture, theology, history and traditions, the winter solstice is about the passing of one year and the beginning of another, with the hope that the sun will return with its nurturing warmth, and the darkness of night will not become eternal.  So friends, whether you be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, pagan, undecided, unaffiliated, or secular humanist, come together, lift your glasses, and welcome the new year with your ale, wine, near-beer, grape juice, bottled water, or milk!  Come, wassail, sing, dance, tell a story, recite a poem, and drive the dark away!  Welcome, Yule!

P.S. Sorry about the blurriness of the photos.  I was taking this without flash before and after the performance.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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