Christmas Revels

One of my favorite events of the year (aside: when I write that phrase I hear it in Mayor Menino’s voice) is The Christmas Revels. The Revels started in Cambridge in 1971 as an annual performance of music, dance, and storytelling around the them of Christmas and the winter solstice. In the early days, the Revels were set in medieval England and several traditions arose including the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, a mummers’ play, and a morris dance to the song “Lord of the Dance” which ends with the audience joining in and dancing into the lobby. Audience participation is key to the Revels experience.

Over the years the Revels have explored the music and traditions of cultures from all over the world. One of my favorite stories is that the first time they tried a non-medieval England theme they decided to leave out “The Lord of the Dance” since morris dancing didn’t fit the theme. When the first act came to an end, the audiences in Cambridge got up and did the dance anyhow. Thus the theme of a Revels performance is loosely adhered to and Revels traditions are a larger part of the experience than devout cultural authenticity. The Christmas Revels are now performed in several cities across the US.

I first saw the Christmas Revels in 1995 at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC. The theme for this performance was “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” a tale of King Arthur’s court. I learned of the Revels in Cambridge when I moved to the area in 1998, but didn’t manage to see a performance until 2001. A great advantage to seeing the Revels in Cambridge is that the performances are held in the wonderful Sanders Theater which a friend describes as “if you’re watching the show from within an old rolltop desk.” Since then the Revels are an annual tradition for my wife and I and a growing group of friends. Here’s a quick summary of the Revels performances I’ve seen:

  • 2001 — Set in Tudor England, with the first act in Henry VIII’s reign and the second act in the court of Queen Elizabeth. We watched from the balcony of Saunders Theater which isn’t as much fun since we couldn’t participate in “The Lord of the Dance.”
  • 2002 — The Revels drew on the culture of the immigrant communities of Watertown and themed this performance on the cultures of Armenia and Georgia. Possibly some of the best singing I’ve heard in a Revels performance.
  • 2003 — A Scottish-themed Revels featuring the beautiful vocals of the radiant Jayne Tankersley. For this year only the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance was performed in the lobby during intermission accompanied by Scottish reels. I managed to score front row seats for this performance.
  • 2004 — The Revels went north for a Quebecois theme featuring voyageurs and flying canoes.
  • 2005 — For the 35th Anniversary, The Revels returned to a medieval English theme with the singing of numerous old favorites. Of all the Revels, this one is my least favorite due to the tedious telling of the story of the donkey Fauvel and a creepy-sounding counter-tenor.

Tonight, Susan and I will be there for opening night with Kim, Abby, Ally, Anthony and Mark. This year the Revels are set in the German and Swiss Alps so I’m looking forward to hearing some yodeling, and seeing folk dancing in leiderhosen and dirndls. Here are the previews from The Boston Globe and Boston Herald. I’m not going to read them myself until I’ve seen the performance and put down my own thoughts on the show here.

Having seen the Revels, here is my review:No dirndls, the men’s short pants were more like breeches, and very little yodeling, but despite that an excellent performance. David Coffin usually takes a leading role as vocalist and musician in the show, but this year he had less of a presence especially in the first act.

The show is hosted by Sankt Nikolaus (Richard Snee) with his assistant Knecht Ruprecht (Debra Wise) – a demon-like creature who speaks in whistles and carries a switch to punish bad kids (better than Black Peter). They appear on the stage with a ledger alleged to have all the good and bad deeds of everyone in the audience. St. Nick wants to review everyone one by one, but Ruprecht correctly deduces that it would take two days.

All this ties in nicely with my St. Nicholas post of a week past. I even learned a new story about St. Nicholas in which three boys (comically portrayed by puppets) are chopped to bits by a landlord when visiting Athens. St. Nicholas sees it in a vision, and after the landlord begs forgiveness, the saint resurrects the boy.

There was yodeling, but not the kind one would expect. Instead there was the beautiful and haunting “Chlausezauerli” sung (yodeled?) in harmony by four men. It was more melodic and less rambunctious than the stereotype of Swiss yodeling. This lead into the mesemerizing “Dance of the Uglies and the Beautifuls” where wildly attired people danced and rang bells. The Uglies looked like “The Green Man” and while the Beautifuls wore masks that looked Chinese. The percussion accompanying the dance also reminded me of the drumming in the Chinese New Year festival. Is there a German Swiss/Chinese connection?

Other Highlights:

“Shuhplatter — Reit Im Winkler” — one of those cool German “shoe-slapping” dances
“The Lord of the Dance” — Fun even though Anthony ran off to dance with Susan. I challenged him to a duel (blindfolded water guns at dawn on Cambridge Common). I did get to dance with Abby & gazillions of strangers, so it was a good time.
“Still, Still” – a lullaby sung by women in the choir loft. They rang bells that remind me of the sheep bells in the Alpe di Siussi.
“Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen” – a song I didn’t know I knew, albeit as Pete Seeger’s “Of Time and River’s Flowing.” A beatiful melody. It made Kim weepy.


“O Tannenbaum (O Fir Tree)”
“O Du Frohliche! O Du Selige! (O Joyful, O Blessed)”
Rounds: “Alleluja,” “Danket dem Herrn,” and “Dona Nobis Pacem”
“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night)”
“Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen (There is a Flower Springing)”

Mummer’s Play:

“Siegfried and the Dragon” – featuring a large, moustached Brunnhilda (Donald A. Duncan), a gleaming, arrogant Siegfried (David Coffin), and a Grouch Marx impersonating Doctor Frood (Debra Wise). The Mummer’s Play doesn’t change much from year to year and this one seemed particularly lacking in originality. I did like the dancing bear, and particularly impressed by the bear handler Sarah Hebert-Johnson who I remember seeing many years ago when she was a talented young girl who has blossomed into a talented young woman.

Horrible David Coffin pun:

During intermission, David Coffin always comes out to practice the second act singalongs with the audience, and always, always sneaks in a horrible pun. Example: one year while wearing a vest made of animal fur, he told us it was made in a town on Boston’s North Shore, “Man-chest-hair.” This year, nothing, nada, zip! No puns and I’m horribly disapointed. Maybe it was opening night, but David, c’mon I’m counting on you!

All the same, I wish I could see the Revels again. Go and see them for me.

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