Christmas Revels is a forty-year Christmas tradition in Washington, with the Washington Revels (the performance group) dedicated to fostering community through the celebration of a variety of cultural traditions. Although there is another like event in May, and throughout the year classes for children, community sings, and even parades, the Revels hit their stride at the yuletide season.
The Christmas Revels varies its theme each year, focusing on the traditions of a different country, culture, or time period. Music, dance, storytelling, and drama are performed, but with a focus on authenticity based on meticulous research. This year’s production is “Celtic Crossroads,” focusing on Celtic nineteenth-century Appalachian traditions, but also German, African-American, and Melungeon cultural contributions to the region.
During the course of the evening of festive entertainment, we met long-time Falls Church resident Marissa Maley. She told us: “I was brought to my first Revels in December 2000 by a coworker. She said her ‘family had been going for years,’ and she invited me because that year’s theme was Celtic, and she knew I loved attending the Maryland Renaissance Festival. I remember thinking that the ticket was rather expensive and hoped it would be worth the price. I was not disappointed: within 15 minutes, I was leaning forward in my seat, utterly enchanted by the imagery, songs, and storyline. By the intermission, I knew that I had to be a part of this.
“I volunteered the following year, helping out in the makeup room. I was overjoyed to learn that I didn’t have to wait until December to revel, as there were celebrations year round, so the next year, I sang in the first of many May Revels, held on the grounds of the National Cathedral. I was first cast as part of the chorus in the 2005 Northlands Revels (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Karelia), and since then have sung in many more productions—and languages!”
Now in its 40th year of production, Christmas Revels has formed a solid community of performers, fans, and many like Marissa who are both. There are people who attended as children and, now grown up, have had children of their own and bring them each year to be part of the audience. Marissa elaborates: “People that met during the earliest Revels are now parents and grandparents of singers, dancers, and volunteers. ‘Once a Reveler, always a Reveler!’ is often heard at rehearsals and events throughout the year—an acknowledgement of how the Revels community just keeps growing.”
This sense of community allows for a tremendous rapport between performers and audience. One example was “Lord of the Dance,” in which the cast danced in a chain in the aisles, picking up and adding to the chain audience members who wanted to join along the way. Another example of audience involvement was in the singing of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in which audience members were encouraged to stand up, sing, and gesture approximations of phrases of the song such as “gold rings,” “seven swans a swimming,” and “twelve drummers drumming.” The popular “Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly” was also sung. Pleasing, if lesser known Christmas songs were also presented, such as “Star in the East,” “Sussex Mummers Carol,” and An American Wassail.” A welcome bit of theatricality was offered by British actress Catherine Flye as “Gran.”
The Celtic element was certainly present throughout, perhaps most notably in the closing with a rendition of Scottish poet Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne,” which was both played on the bagpipes and sung by the audience. A memorable non-Celtic element was a gospel rendering of “Amazing Grace.” Bells, flutes, and groupings of brass instruments also were heard, along with choral singing. Occasional Irish dancing made its way onto the Lisner auditorium stage, which was framed by a semblance of a large traditional patchwork quilt (representing the various traditions which have been patched together to become one).
Revelers come from all over the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, Falls Church included! As resident Marissa told us: “I’ve made so many friends, learned so many things, and had such joyful celebrations as part of the Washington Revels. I am so very thankful to my coworker, who gave me a gift I can never repay—a second family of those who volunteer their time and effort to bring joy to the community, and each other, because we believe that we are more alike than we are different.”“Celtic Crossroads” runs two more days (December 16 and 18) at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. For more information, please visit: The 2022 Christmas Revels: Celtic Crossroads (revelsdc.org)