Bright Pageantry Lessens the Dark Of Mid-Winter At Holiday Time
Communal celebrations known as `revels' are catching on in several US cities
BOSTON — CAROLS and costumes, mythological stories and mimes, dancers and mummer's plays, trumpets and timbals, puppets and poems. Add a good dose of audience participation and what do you get? A celebration called the Christmas Revels that has become a holiday tradition in seven cities across the United States.
The Christmas Revels was started in 1957 when a singer named John Langstaff staged a production in New York City. Although it received critical praise, it was an expensive feat, so plans for future productions were shelved.
But 14 years later in 1971, Mr. Langstaff's daughter persuaded him to put on revels in Cambridge, Mass. Father and daughter organized the event, which was so successful it became a fixture of the community. Since then, Hanover, N.H.; Washington; Philadelphia; Houston; New York; and Oakland, Calif., have formed revels groups. Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Ore., are in various planning stages. Each community has its own organization but is contractually and artistically affiliated with the Cambridge Revels.
Langstaff emphasizes that the Christmas Revels is really a winter solstice celebration. Each year, it draws more than 50,000 people of many faiths and religions. ``Revels is a nondenominational performance,'' celebrating renewal and light coming out of winter darkness, he says.
While the revels contains some of the same elements year after year - the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the mummer's plays, and the Lord of the Dance - each is built around a theme.
Popular ones have focused on medieval, Renaissance, and Eastern European rituals, dances, and songs.
But Langstaff has also expanded the repertoire by including non-European-based revels, such as one on the Georgia sea islands that centered around gospel music and African-American spirituals.
He and other research- ers will spend part of this January in Central America viewing Mayan and other Indian culture rituals. They plan on using the material for a future revels production.
The celebration combines the talents of professionals and amateurs as well as children. The audience also plays a big role.
``It's a form of music theater that is different from the way in which we usually think of concerts and plays because of the element of participation as well as the way in which revels doesn't have a plot,'' says Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, artistic director for the San Francisco Bay Revels. ``There's a cohesiveness to each show, but it doesn't follow a strict story line.''
The Cambridge Revels this year has Scandinavia as its theme. Langstaff explains how the performance is structured.
``When people first come in ... we'll quickly teach them a couple of simple carols and refrains we're going to be using in the first act,'' he says. That will be followed by mythological stories from Finland acted out by colorful puppets; a chorus; Norwegian musicians; morris dancers; music and dance performed by a group from Finland; a poem from the Shetland Islands; a Santa Lucia procession; and more.
Many revels organizations expand beyond Christmas. The Cambridge Revels also stages spring and midsummer revels, along with one that celebrates the sea.
In Hanover, N.H., Revels North produces country and Shaker revels.