It’s a cold December day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ice has not yet formed on the Charles, but the bite in the wind lets us know it soon will. The sky is so blue and the sun shines so strongly at that pre-solstice angle that we have to shade our eyes. Our family has come in from as far away as Virginia and as nearby as Newton to reunite for this event. We are dressed warmly and finely, in wool slacks and dress shoes, but truth be told, the kids are wearing last year’s homemade mittens and hats. We hold our children’s hands as we climb the marble steps and open the heavy wooden door to Sanders Hall at Harvard University.
Once inside, we see a crowd gathering over by the CD table perusing CDs made from all the disparate Revels past: Appalachian Revels, Celtic Revels, Scandinavian Revels, Balkan Revels, Italian Revels. Whatever flavor you might want you are likely to find, as some form of Revels has been produced since 1971. This afternoon is a kind of Mediterranean Revels, and as we take our seats in Sanders (a room described by either Cheryl Wheeler or John Gorka as resembling the inside of Benjamin Franklin’s writing desk) a trio of fools known as Soleil, Auclaire du Lune and Etoille take the stage.
A skeleton (the amazing Linnea Coffin) enters, dancing like a dervish, and stealthily steals away the three balls of light, leaving the medieval village bathed in darkness. The quest is on to find the light–or at least the reflection of the light.
In years past, we sat in these sames seats and watched a troupe of teenagers Morris Dancers dance to a Shaker tune. We have rejoiced in the annual Mummer’s play called “St. George and the Dragon” which had Abigail’s five-year-olds howling, especially when the character who purports to be a quack doctor throws marshmallows that are supposed to be pills out into the audience. St. George fights the dragon, and defeats it, but is cut down by yet another sextet of Morris dancers in a dance involving wooden sticks representing swords. This death has been prophesied by Father Christmas:
St. George shall come
And die by swords which circle round his neck.
As winter dies, so shall he die and rise again as spring.
The fool revives him (after the quack doctor fails to) and St. George rises, singing,
Good morning, gentlemen, a sleeping I have been.
And I’ve had such a sleep as the like was never seen.
But now I am awake, alive unto this day.
The dancers shall have their dance and the doctor take his pay.
Thus, with song and silliness, the oldest story is retold: that of the earth dying and renewing herself, which so many cultures celebrate on the shortest day of the year.
This year, the mummer’s play featured our three fools, who did manage to retrieve the reflections of Light, and eventually the skeleton also returned the balls to their rightful positions. Soleil took the part of St. George (or rather, its rightful place, as St. George is both Christ figure and sun king). There were no marshmallows, but this was one of the most glorious and spirited Revels we have ever witnessed. This performance includes favorites like the master of ceremonies (our dear friend David Coffin) singing “Lord of the Dance” at the end of the first act, where the troupe dances off the stage to grasp hands with the audience members and form a line that snakes its way out into the hall or lobby. The end of the second act includes leading the audience in some three-part singing of “Dona Nobis Pacem” and the “Sussex Mummers Carol.”
Our family has participated in Revels since the 1970s, not long after its founding by Jack Langstaff. In the early 80s when he brought Revels to Washington DC, our youngest sister Abigail was in the first children’s troupe, and our father joined the chorus. He sang with them for 18 years, and in the middle of those, Nerissa sang in the chorus as well, for two years post-college. Katryna sang in a teenage troupe for French Revels while in high school.
The first year our father sang with Revels was the year our mother turned forty. Our parents are famously good at surprising each other on these occasions, and our mother’s birthday falls on Christmas Eve. That afternoon, late in the day when the sun had gone down so early, our father beckoned my mother to the window: “Gail, what’s this?” Outside was a procession of friends, cloaked in winter coats and scarves, each holding a candle and singing, “God bless the mistress of this house” as they climbed the hill to our front door. Once inside, our mother recognized each one as an old friend or family member come to celebrate her life.
We know many families who build their holiday traditions around attending or participating in a Revels performance. Though the themes are unapologetically from the Christian tradition, they are not religious per se, and many who perform in Revels are strong members of non-Christian traditions. The emphasis is as much on the solstice and the season we all share—the dying of the daylight, the peace of darkness. If the idea of celebrating the season in this kind of focused communal way appeals to you, check out Revels, Inc and see what they might be doing in your area. And if you are ambitious, start your own!
 Revels has spread all over the country; to date there are 10 companies, in Cambridge, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, DC, Houston, Denver, Portaland OR, Puget Sound, the Bay Area, Santa Barbara and Boulder, CO.