Christmas and the holiday season is the time when tradition comes into its own. While the rest of the year we might seek the new and novel, when the darkness closes in around the shortest day of the year we crave the comfort of the familiar.
But the holiday season also offers us a unique opportunity to go even further back than our own childhoods and learn about the origins of our traditions. We can also revel in less well-known versions of the tried and true, like ringing the changes on a familiar peal of bells.
Nothing embodies both of these impulses better than the Washington Revels. For 40 years they have been sharing the traditional songs, music, and dances of the holidays, and educating audiences about these traditions’ origins.
Last year, the Washington Revels presented Christmas Revels in live performances at the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo. This year they return in person to the Lisner Auditorium at GW University with a production entitled The Christmas Revels: Celtic Crossroads.
The show traces the origins of American holiday music to the Appalachians and all the different people who lived there. It presents a mountain town full of families of disparate origins — Scottish, Irish, German (Pennsylvania Dutch), and African American. The setting is an amalgam of Christmas Eve, the Winter Solstice, and the New Year, and one old lady, Gran (Catherine Flye, a beloved DC theater professional), regales the children of the hollow with stories of the old country in a lilting Scottish accent, introducing the singing, dancing, and music of the season.
The Washington Revels are a volunteer organization, but the production is of the highest quality on every level. The set, designed by Andrew Cohen, is lovely, consisting of two wooden cabins with a range of blue-green mountains in between. At one point, when the whole town comes out for celebrations, rafters full of lanterns descend, turning the whole stage into a fellowship hall. In a special touch, the proscenium is ringed with paintings modeled on quilt blocks. The lighting, by Colin K. Bills, is equally evocative; at the start of the show, the mountains are just touched with the remnants of sunset, which fade into night as the story progresses, until the only light comes from one candle in a cottage window. But brighter illumination returns in more celebratory scenes. Rachael Feola and Delaney Theisz’s costumes are beautifully and carefully realized by a veritable army of stitchers and wardrobe workers, with adults’ and children’s outfits evoking the mid-19th century right down to the appropriate hair and hats, and this year including kilts. The extensive online program, designed by Kristen Murray with program notes by Elizabeth Anne Fulford and Andrea Blackford, includes detailed explanations of the provenance of all the music in the show.
That music, directed by Elizabeth Anne Fulford, is terrifically varied, but uniformly excellent. The musicians include the rousing Breakin’ Up Christmas Brass quintet, who play Scottish dance tunes (complete with “drone”) and accompany traditional carols; the delightful Whiskey Before Breakfast Band, complete with flute, whistle, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, Appalachian dulcimer, accordion, spoons and bones for percussion; bagpipes large and small; and a handbell choir! Dance is a large part of the revelry, and here we see revelers enjoying Big Circle, Cèilidh, and Morris dancing, all descendants of traditions from the Irish and British Isles.
But it is the choirs of adults, children, and teens that are the heart of the Revels, and they are equally fine. They master the complex and often haunting harmonies of hymns, shape-note singing, African American spirituals, and a chillingly beautiful 13th-century Alleluia chant accompanied by shivering handbells. All these songs beautifully portray how the holiday music that has come down to us found its origin and soul in the lives, loves, losses, joys, and celebrations of all these disparate people who came together in a new land. In one particularly moving moment, “Coming from Home,” members of different families tell the stories of what they overcame to be there — persecution, poverty, famine, enslavement — and show how their music shored up the bonds that helped them persevere.
Even on the darkest night, however, there is light, and the Revels wouldn’t be Revels without revelry. There is abundant audience participation, including a hilarious and chaotic audience rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” a moving “Amazing Grace,” “Auld Lang Syne” and “Peace Round,” and a first-act finale where the cast leads the audience out of their seats to join in the “Lord of the Dance.” There are also raucous traditions without which any Revels would be incomplete, such as the “Mummers Mashup,” when Father Christmas and other folk characters come together to banish the darkness and celebrate the return of the sun.
All of these disparate elements are shaped into a cohesive whole by Artistic/Stage Director Roberta Gasbarre, and she, her Associate Artistic Director Andrea Jones Blackford, and two assistant directors, Julia C. Marks and Levi Leca, keep all 80 (!) cast members moving at a surprisingly spritely yet graceful pace.
There are too many people to mention who make The Christmas Revels: Celtic Crossroads so successful, but the production shines with the care and love they clearly lavish upon it. It charms and delights, it warms with tradition, but it also teaches and makes you think.
I’m going to add the Washington Revels to my holiday traditions. See it — you will want to, as well.
The Christmas Revels: Celtic Crossroads will play December 16–18, 2022, presented by Washington Revels performing live at GW Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st Street NW, Washington, DC. A virtual encore streaming option will follow beginning on December 23 through January 6, 2023. Purchase in-person tickets ($12–$65; 25% off youth tickets for December 16 Family Friday performance) online. On-demand tickets for online viewing ($40) are now available for purchase.
Program notes for The Christmas Revels: Celtic Crossroads are online here.
COVID Safety: Masking is optional but strongly encouraged for audience members in Lisner Auditorium. For more information see Revels’ COVID policy. In an effort to offer a safe and accessible option, Christmas Revels will also be available for online viewing for patrons who purchase a virtual ticket.
A preview peek as Washington Revels prepares its 40th Christmas Revels (interview feature by Susan Galbraith, November 30, 2022)