ALMOST every culture has some kind of ritual to celebrate the winter solstice, to mark the passage of the cold and dark into the beginnings of warmth and light.
In Cambridge, Mass., as well as eight other cities across the country, that celebration is synonymous with the Christmas Revels, a pageant of music, dance, drama, storytelling, and ritual that draws from cultural traditions around the world.
The nondenominational spectacle mines not only Christmas traditions, but also those of Hanukkah, New Year's Eve, Twelfth Night, and summer solstice celebrations.
There is always a strong element of humor and playfulness as well as stage magic to inspire a sense of wonder. And at the heart of a Revels production is its participatory spirit, a joining together of audience members and cast in celebratory song and dance.
The idea of a concert baritone and highly gifted music teacher, John Langstaff, Revels celebrates its 25th anniversary season this year. In Cambridge, at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre, the Revels will revisit the theme of its first production.
A whimsical excursion to old England looks at the life of the medieval court. Among a cast of 80 performers is the enormously talented clown Larry Pisoni as the Fool, troubador John Fleagle, the Pinewoods Morris Men, and, in honor of the Revels anniversary, Langstaff himself appears on stage.
The performance includes merrymaking that is drawn from medieval/renaissance traditions such as a mummer's play, a skit called ''The Lord of Misrule,'' in which an unsuspecting audience member is plucked from his seat and made King, and the rousing ''Lord of the Dance'' processional. The latter has become a Revels trademark, in which audience members join hands with the actors and musicians, singing and dancing through the aisles and out into the grand lobby of Memorial Hall.
This kind of communal interaction is what makes the Revels such unusual theater, a marking of the seasons much the way our ancestors might have done centuries ago.
''The audience becomes part of it. It's like a kind of liturgy, which literally means 'the work of the people,' '' Langstaff says.
Though the Christmas Revels officially began in 1971, its roots go back to Langstaff's childhood when his musical parents hosted caroling parties. It was then that the seed was planted for the celebratory form of theater Langstaff would later bring to life.
To share his appreciation and understanding of traditional folk music, dance, and rituals from around the world, Langstaff hosted a one-time production at New York City's Town Hall in 1957. Although the show received rave reviews, it was a financial disaster for Langstaff.
In 1966, NBC Television urged Langstaff to resurrect the program for a nationally televised special, featuring an entire Elizabethan house full of theatrical magic, including a young Dustin Hoffman in the role of the dragon.
When Langstaff moved to Cambridge to live and teach, his daughter, Carol, convinced him the city would be a great place to produce the Revels live again.
''She had the vision,'' Langstaff says. ''She was the power behind getting the Revels started again. No one had the vaguest idea what the Revels were or what we were trying to do, so we had to build up from scratch, pulling people in off the streets as it were. It was done with all volunteers. We borrowed $600 from two different people, and that was our budget.
''We had our tenors out hammering on sets and props. Basically our first set was a lot of trees. We brought in truckloads of balsams to create a forest, and people still talk about the experience of walking into Sanders Theatre lobby and actually smelling the 'Winter Solstice.' It was a simple production, but done with a great deal of heart.''
In the most recent edition of the Christmas Revels Songbook (Revels Inc., 147 pp., $16.95), compiled by Langstaff and his wife, Nancy, he explains the significance of the winter solstice celebration: ''We once lived our lives in close touch with the changing seasons, wondering and fearful of what might or might not come to pass at the darkest time of year, hoping that our song, our mime, our dance could work as a propitiation to Nature, to ensure the return of Spring, warmth and new life. Many of our carols reflect these ancient concerns.''
A quarter of a century after that first Cambridge production, the Revels tradition has spread to nine cities and attracts more than 50,000 people each year. And the Revels Inc., based in Cambridge, has grown into a national arts venture, producing other seasonal and community celebrations (Midsummer Revels, Spring Revels, Country Revels, Shaker Revels, Fall Revels) across the country, as well as songbooks, CDs, and a choral series.
Despite the organization's growth, it remains a community affair at heart. Casts, numbering from 60 to 100 people, are mostly volunteers with a small core of professional actors, singers, and instrumentalists. And children are crucial to any Revels production.
''The children represent a sense of continuity,'' Langstaff says. And the experience of performing with the Revels isn't one they soon forget. ''Some of the children in our early shows have come back as adults with children of their own to participate in productions. It's quite a wonderful cycle.''
Langstaff shows no sign of slowing down. He recently helped launch the Portland, Ore., Revels, and he is now working on a Jewish Revels and an African-American Revels. But he says this may be his last year overseeing the Cambridge production.
''I'm more interested now in starting Revels in other cities,'' he says. ''I love to travel and meet people. Once I've done that and gotten a new production on its feet, I move on, and they go on their own. It's like a large family spread across the country all working on the same thing.''
Mary Lynn attended the Cambridge Revels for years before moving to Puget Sound, Wash., with her family and starting the Revels there. She says the impact has been remarkable.
''I see people in the grocery store in May, and they are still talking about the [Christmas] Revels,'' she says.