We have been celebrating the winter solstice for nearly two decades by attending the Washington Revel’s annual Christmas Revels productions. These are a conglomeration of traditional, familiar, and novel choral songs. Each year the production features a place, culture, or time period which determines what carols will fill the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. Some years, we could sing along, tuned-to-tune, when a location such as Victorian England is featured. Other years, such as last year when the Thrace, a region between Greece and Eastern Europe, was featured, we had to get a bit of a lesson in regional history. When we received the notice that this year’s Christmas Revels would be set in Ireland, we thought, “Great, lots of recognizable tunes, just in Gaelic”.
Ireland is an excellent location for featuring the interaction of Christian traditions and pagan rituals. While Emperor Hadrian stopped short of Ireland, preferring to try to wall off the Scots north of England and leaving the Irish Sea to the east, Christianity found a safe haven for centuries to come. The oldest copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans was spirited away to the island for safekeeping. It remains in archives in Ireland today. The image here is from the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript preserved at Trinity College in Dublin (okay, quiz: Can you name each of the four Evangelists by their symbols represented here?).
The Romans came only as far as the low lands near Dublin. They turned heal and shook the mud off their sandals rather than tangle with the locals. But, Christianity spread throughout the island, building monasteries in verdant glens and desolate islands. When we toured Ireland a few years back we walked along these paths. Even in the 21st century, we could see the remnants of the pagan beliefs. “Holy wells” named after various saints were previously worshiped as coming from life-giving spirits.
With these thought, we made our trek to the Christmas Revels, met up with friends to feast and sing. Yet, the production featured a different era of Irish history: the potato famine of 1848. The first half of the production is set in a pub, where villagers gather for Yule-time carols and cheer. While the atmosphere is spirited, in a holiday and pub sort of way, the darkness of the natural and political landscape which culminated in the potato famine lingered of the village. There are reference to crop failures, not being able to pay the land owner, and tenants being evicted.
The severity of the events become evident after the intermission. Several of the villagers whom we met in the first act are driven off the stage with their possessions, for they have not been able to pay the landlord. They gather with others who file up a gang-plank into the deck of a ship which has been hired to take them to America. The deck of this ship will be the stage for the rest of the performance. The symbolism of the solstice’s darkest night is transformed into the darkness of diaspora and uncertainty that the emigrants experience. They celebrate Christmas at sea before reaching New York.
The cycle of the winter solstice is that of awakening after the darkest day, to see the ray of light at sunrise which brings a new year. Again, rather than emphasizing the rising of the sun, this production of the Revels symbolized that renewal with the rays of hope in life in America. But, this is a somber light. We know that the Irish will establish their identity in major cities, New York, Boston, and Chicago. Many will spread out across the farms, mountains, and prairies with the expansion of the states. Just as each Spring brings hope of a new planting seasons, each Springs brings uncertainty.
The immigrants also settle in the uncertainty of a nation shifting between agrarian, urban, and industrializing cultures. Irish laborers settling in the southern states (about 1/3 of those who came during the Potato Famine) would begin to displace slavery, for their wages and lack of long-term commitment from the plantation owners would cost less than purchasing and maintaining a slave workforce. Similarly, those who settled in the north would labor in the factories which produced the military equipment that would supply the Union armies during the Civil War. Both Union and Confederate soldiers would be well represented by Irish immigrants.
While much of these background issues are left unstated in this year’s Christmas Revels production, the cords of the harp, melodies of the fiddle, timber of the flutes, and droning of the uilleann pipes carried the melancholy tone of that era. But, the sadness of leaving one’s home, the longing to return, and the hope of a new life parallel the Christian traditions at this season. Christ would be born to die. His followers would spread out in the world, offering hope, even to an island on the edge of the world.