In one of Washington Revels’ most-performed songs, “Country Life,” we sing: “I like to rise when the sun she rises, early in the morning/I like to hear them small birds singing, merrily upon their laylums.” A laylum is probably a bit of fallow land—it doesn’t matter; it’s a place where birds sing. Cheerful and bright, the song continues through the agricultural year. “In spring we sow, at the harvest mow; and that is how the seasons ‘round they go.”
Much of what we do at Washington Revels is rooted in the seasons. Spring is the star of our May Revels. During the hot days of summer, we march and sing in local parades. In our after-school workshops, children explore how people down the ages have interpreted the seasons in music, dance and drama.
In the Christmas Revels, we celebrate the time beyond the harvest, the darkest time of the year. Winter is a simple fact of our planet. Earth spins at an angle, its axis tilted at 23.4 degrees. When the top of the planet points toward the sun, the northern hemisphere basks in its warmth. But when our end of the planet points out into the universe, we shiver and draw close together. “They lighted candles in the winter trees/They hung their homes with evergreen,” Susan Cooper wrote in her poem “The Shortest Day,” recited near the end of every Christmas Revels performance. Each December we gather at Lisner Auditorium, “singing, dancing, to drive the dark away.”
Usually, in the Christmas Revels, we visit one or more specific cultures and eras, exploring how people in different places and times have celebrated the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Nature is present primarily as a backdrop to rural life. This year, nature comes to the forefront, as we explore our relationship with the natural world. The time period is less defined than usual, over a thousand years ago, in the Middle Ages. Back then, it was hard to escape our planet’s physics. When the world was cold and dark, we were cold and dark. Nearly everyone had to think about plants and pests, and whether the chickens would stop laying or the river would flood.
Today, some of us are still closely tied to the physical world. There’s a farmer in our chorus, for example. But many of us might think we can wall ourselves off from nature. Convenience stores will sell us eggs at any hour of the day or night. We have concrete, insulation, and elevators.
We are still part of this planet, though. Life feels different when the sun sets so early. Our city can shut down for days if the wrong set of air masses happens to collide over us. As we come together this weekend—whether on one of Washington’s oddly warm December days or whether the snow has begun—let’s sing together of peace and warmth, and look forward to when the sun comes back, the forsythia bloom, and the cherry trees let their clouds of petals fly.
A version of this essay appears in this year’s Christmas Revels program.
Photo: Helen Fields, thinking of spring