Christmas Revels: The Sounding Joy
Slide Show: Christmas Revels
The Christmas Revels, a winter-solstice celebration of folksong and dance, began 39 years ago this season–long enough in the past that some kids who sang in the first Revels productions have appeared later on stage as adults, while others have seen kids of their own join the chorus. For years, extended families have made the show an annual pilgrimage; friends in the audience return each December to the same rows and seats, organize reunions beforehand at the same restaurants, or go out afterward to the same coffee shops. Originally designed to celebrate authentic, communal traditions, the Revels by now has itself become an authentic, communal tradition in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Revels was the brainchild of the late John Langstaff (“Jack” to his friends and colleagues), a Juilliard-trained concert baritone who had a deep interest in folk culture and storytelling. Langstaff first staged a “Christmas Masque” at New York’s Town Hall in 1957. Despite an enthusiastic response, though, the celebration lost money, and after a staging in Washington, D.C., and a made-for-television encore, Langstaff brought the curtain down on the idea, seemingly for good.
But in 1971 Langstaff’s daughter Carol persuaded him to try it again in Cambridge, her hometown. Langstaff brought together professionals and amateurs under a new name, “The Christmas Revels,” and the chemistry worked: The pros felt energized by the enthusiasm of the community singers and bent their voices to sound less trained and more natural; the amateurs learned from and felt inspired by the pros and sang better. The blending was just right for the material and created the feeling of a family, or a village, celebrating.
David Coffin, who has performed in 30 Revels productions, believes that Langstaff’s inclusive vision was key. “He was like a neighbor among us–though, to be sure, a neighbor with a very fine voice,” he says. Something between the audiences and the performers clicked.
Langstaff’s choice of venue added a note of perfection. Sanders Theatre–an elegant space within Harvard’s Gothic, mansard-towered Memorial Hall–lent something magical to the gatherings. This magnificent yet intimate lecture hall–with its warm, polished woodwork and three soaring levels of seating–worked on the audience even as they were arriving. As the Revels’ current artistic director, Patrick Swanson, puts it, “We have the extraordinary presence of Sanders Theatre itself. People who come for the first time feel as though they’ve come into a great, big, familial place. Of course, many, many people come back every year …”
Within a few seasons after the 1971 début, a nonprofit group formed to promote and stage ever-more-ambitious productions. Audiences learned to appreciate new traditions each year, from Scandinavia, Scotland, Mexico, Russia, Eastern Europe, or, as they did last year, Appalachia, the African American South, Native American gatherings, and New England’s Shaker communities.
But they also learned to anticipate and participate in elements that were common to every show, both in Cambridge and at the nine other cities into which the Revels franchise has expanded: the handkerchief-waving morris dancers; a poem for the shortest day of the year, which ends with the audience’s rousing “Welcome Yule!”; and, perhaps especially, “Lord of the Dance,” which, by tradition, ends the first act of the show and brings the spectators, holding hands in a long, winding line, out of their seats and into the lobby for intermission.
The rituals are important. After five or six years of concluding the performance with an audience sing-along of “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” Langstaff decided to try a different ending. The audience dutifully sang along with the new selection, then–from memory–spontaneously added an a capella rendition of “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” so that the show could end properly. The community had more ownership of the production than did Langstaff–and at that moment, all those years ago, Langstaff knew that the Revels had become a tradition. Now in its 40th season, it’s only become stronger in the decades since.