Back in the early 90’s, Washington Revels did a few post-Christmas shows at the Birchmere with the local folk-rock band The New St. George. Now the New St. George’s leader, Jennifer Cutting, has a fabulous new band, and we’re reuniting with her to do a show tonight at the Birchmere!
Monday night was our last rehearsal–the show is tonight at 7:30. We ran through a few songs from this year’s Christmas Revels and also practiced with Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra.
The biggest thing we do at Washington Revels is The Christmas Revels, but we have lots of events through the year, too. I love this kind of gig, where we don’t have much rehearsal and the directors are figuring things out on the fly. Some of the arrangements changed over the weekend. The mummers rehearsed their play tonight for the first time. It feels very seat-of-the-pants, but it’s great to know that we can put together a great show quickly, after the massive, months-long project of The Christmas Revels.
This post is a reprint of “The Shortest Day” by Paddy Swanson (Artistic Director, Revels, Inc.). It was published on December 21, 2011 in the Revels Winter Newsletter.
In our own time the Winter Solstice is indissolubly linked with the festival of Christmas, though it was not always so. The myths of the festival are so deeply embedded within us that we no longer ask why we bring an evergreen into the house or decorate with candles or hang mistletoe. We take these things for granted as we plunge into the hectic preparations for Christmas and the New Year. Overall there is a heightened sense of something significant happening at a fixed point on the calendar. For some it is Christmas night, for others it is watching the ball drop in Times Square. The commercial frenzy of gift buying is fueled by references to holly and stars and carols and the streets are illuminated by strings of twinkling lights. Sometimes the blurring of images can distort the meaning of the event that is being celebrated.
Underneath it all the unifying event is the arrival of the shortest day of the year. Perhaps in response to some primal human anxiety our common ancestors marked out the shortest day as the turning point in the year’s cycle of warmth and plenty and cold and scarcity. Over history major feasts and celebrations have accumulated around this time, sacred and secular – Yule, Christmas, Saturnalia, Midwinter – over the years amassing volumes of literature, custom, ritual, music and dance. It is from this great bounty of compressed emotion and meaning that we find the core material for our shows. The Christmas Revels format includes sacred and secular traditions from a wide collection of cultures and presents them in the context of celebration of the shortest day of the year. One of Susan Cooper’s lines in a Revels mummers’ play presents the great mystery of life and death very simply. When the call goes out for a doctor to bring the dead hero back to life, a boy answers,
There is no doctor can bring this man to life,
His dying was a mystery and did not come from strife.
So let the blessed mistletoe about him,
and about him,
and about him go,
And bring him back among us – so.
May you have a very merry Christmas and a happy Solstice and “Great joy to the new!”