The Christmas Revels: An Acadian-Cajun Celebration of the Winter Solstice


 

It’s not Christmas until I’ve partaken of the Christmas Revels which I enjoyed at a Monday matinée with my family at Sanders Theater.  This is the 15th Christmas Revels production I’ve seen including one in Washington in 1995 and the rest in Cambridge from 2001-2006 and 2009 to present.  This years celebration of Acadian/Cajun music, culture, and history is among the best.  As an added bonus, the fire alarm went off near the end of intermission and we got to see everyone evacuate and the Cambridge Fire Department arrive.  My son hadn’t finished his hot chocolate so he was happy for the extended intermission.

Most Revels productions tell a story, but this one has a strong narrative of the French settlers of Acadie in Canada who make the land arable, how they become stuck in the middle of the wars between the French and British, and their exile and resettlement in Louisiana. Such a heavy history does not always fit into the joyousness of Revels, and the scenes of their villages being burned and the Acadians forced to pack up and leave are giving appropriate gravitas. It’s such a Revels tradition to have the “villagers” on stage smiling and warmly interacting, that when during a mournful song the entire cast looks absently into space with somber looks on their faces it is a powerful moment.

But lest you think it’s all sad, there was plenty of joyous celebration.  Here are some of my favorite moments:

  • the large tree on the set, central to the themes of rootedness in the story, but also used to project images relevant to the performance
  • the Revels also have unbelievably talented children in lead roles, and 12-year-old Lola May Williamson may be the best yet.  I even saw her take the time to lift the spirits of a younger child who couldn’t help yawning during the performance.
  • “Le Depart Du Canada (The Leaving of Canada)” feature the long march of villagers leaving Acadia, diagonally across the stage.  I’m pretty sure the cast circled around at least twice to make the line appear even longer.
  • “La Valse Cadienne de Noël” or the Cajun Christmas waltz
  • the part where we threw plush chickens around the audience
  • The Mummer’s Play featuring David Coffin as a caustic alligator
  • It would seem that the character of the doctor in a Cajun mummer’s play would be obvious, but I was totally taken by surprise by the appearance of “Dr. John” (played by Steve Barkhimer) and perhaps the greatest tonal shift in Revels history as he launched into a performance of “Right Place, Wrong Time” followed by the Dixie Cups singing “Iko Iko”
  • The all-women sword dance

The run of the 2016 Revels has ended but you can get yourself the album Valse de Noël and even audition for the 2017 Revels!

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The Christmas Revels: A Welsh Celebration of the Winter Solstice


It’s warm and overcast out, and looking to only get warmer as the week goes.  We’re more likely to have a wet Christmas than a white Christmas, but I know the holiday is coming soon.  Today my family and I celebrated the solstice with a matinée of The Christmas Revels.  This is our (mostly) annual tradition going back to 2001.  The Revels this year is set in Wales, a land of beautiful singing traditions, poetry, and mythology.  I’ve never been to Wales but this show gave me a nostalgic longing for the place.

It should be noted that while Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones are famed Welsh singers, their was music was not represented in the show.  There were familiar tunes for the sing-a-longs – “Cwm Rhondda” and “Hydrofol” – which as song leader David Coffin pointed out, “you know these songs just not with these words.”  The familiar Christmas carol “Deck the Hall” was also sung by a choir of children, but in the original Welsh.  The children – who were excellent as always – also performed scenes from Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

There’s a beautiful scene near the end of Part 1 where Coffin sings “Daffydd y Garregg Wen (David of the White Rock)” accompanied by Haley Hewitt, while Emma Crane Jaster performing as the legendary bard Taliesen.  Jaster is lit from below and moves her arms like a harpist, casting large shadows on the roll-top desk ceiling of Sanders Theatre.  My daughter imitated the gesture, waving her arms by her own imaginary harp.  (And I was right in my memory that Taliesen is also the name of Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Wisconsin). Other highlights include a group of rugby supporter singing a rousing victory song, some fine clogging, and a retelling of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” with the children.

No matter where in the world the Revels is set, there are the Revel’s traditions.  There was a rowdy morris dance and “The Lord of the Dance” where we all spill out into the lobby singing and dancing (I can never get enough of doing that), there’s the haunting Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and there’s the mummer’s play, this year with the Red Dragon playing the role of the hero vanquishing the White Dragon of England for the Welsh.   We sing rounds, we shout “Welcome Yule!,”  we finish on “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” I weep.  Tradition.

I was entranced as – for me – the Revels never fail to please.  My kids were more antsy.  Welsh-language songs make no sense, and my son said even the English was hard to follow.  My daughter wanted to see a dragon and had to wait a looooong time for a four-year-old, but I think the dragon’s eventual arrival satisfied.  They soldiered through and I think they enjoyed themselves, although they wanted cookies too.

Performances continue through December 27, so get your tickets and go if you haven’t already.

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