On a mid-December Sunday afternoon, as the sun sank early in the western sky, my family and I joined with the Revels faithful to welcome in Yuletide.
The California Revels, exiled by rising rents from their longtime home at the Scottish Rite Theatre on Lake Merritt, has this year found a new venue. First Congregational Church of Oakland has opened their doors and offered their space for Revels to present the annual Christmas Revels. We found our seats and tested out the hard pews, wondering how it would go in this new place, exuberant with expectation, and touched with trepidation. How would it be this year? Then the lights went down and the festivities began.
At first we were just watching an old fellow sweep up, but he sang softly:
For we are not of the ragged sort, but some of royal trim.
We’ll sweep away the old year and bring the new year in . . .
Then out from the wings came the company, extravagantly costumed, singing a rousing carol that seemed familiar, something we must have heard many times before, and yet in a strange, old language. And in moments, the magic began to work.
Our song leader emerged and we too began to fill the air with tuneful communion. We were ready to deck the halls and sing of Yuletide treasure. It was sheer joy to sing together songs that so many of us know by heart. Soon it was just as it has always been, lush choral music with plenty of heart and enough razzle-dazzle to put all our fears to rest.
This year’s story thread tells of the Wandering Spirits, seeking and finding each other in the old songs, the customary dances, the favorite readings. The plot device of a bunch of bored teenagers on a tour of the church was a perfect opening for the company’s artistic director, in a delightful turn as the church’s caretaker (and another important role) to explain to one curious young girl just what Revels was all about: “. . . a large troupe of spirits, festive souls from many different times and many, many different places who come together every Yuletide to celebrate the turning of the year. They sing, dance, tell stories and keep alive the traditional ways with which humankind has observed the winter solstice for time out of mind.”
And so he struck the chord of remembering, and began the unfurling of the rich Revels tapestry, woven of many strands to make a liturgy of ordinary and extraordinary devotion to bringing the past alive.
I’ve seen every kind of Revels performance, with big puppets and fabulous sets, elaborate costume and outlandish makeup, a whole range of spectacle and choral arrangement. But this year, it was intimate. The smaller space meant we were all closer together, cast and chorus and participants. Without a proper stage, the dancers took to the aisles of the church and danced in long lines in the midst of the audience. The give and take of enthusiasm between us and performers was palpable, the line between us blurred and fluid. The excitement was reciprocal, circular, and grew and grew.
The set was created by successive light projections, which drew a rapturous sigh from the audience when the first one came up on the church walls around the central altar area. Beautiful sets from past years and montages of other places and times appeared and disappeared before our eyes.
Without the big theater space, the company pared down the show to its essence. And in that distillation, the truest meaning of Revels came shining through. It was like a homecoming: so much joy, so many tears.
They hit all the high points, all the most beloved music and words. Fra Giovanni’s “Letter to a Friend” was recited, after a hiatus of many years. We sang an uproarious “Twelve Days of Christmas,” speeding up as we added verses. There was a lovely procession for the song “What Shall We Give to the Child?” We had a proper Mummer’s Play, complete with Dragon and heroic St. George, a doctor and Father Christmas.
For me the most emotional moment was when the chorus began to sing an obscure Breton folk song called “Le Semeur,” which means The Sower. It is on the Celtic Roads CD published by Revels, and though sung in French, I easily recalled the translation: The sower casts his seed “with plains on one side and sea on the other.” While his grain provides bread for three villages, it also “gives alms to a hundred little birds.” I gasped with delight when they sang the first notes.
I don’t know why this song has always affected me. The word picture made by this rising and falling melody, with the pause before the final verse for the voices to swell together, makes me see the farmer walking in the furrows, scattering the seed and perhaps speaking to the birds who gather around his task. It’s a simple song. Its rhythm strides and strolls, swings and sings. And here in coastal California, we really are between the valley and the sea.
As I listen, it occurs to me that this is what Revels is doing in their show this year, and every year. A young girl asks an old man for wisdom, and he can only give her seeds: of stories, of songs, of dances. Traditions.
Her questions and his answers provide the framework for the show, its magic and mystery. After the ever-enigmatic Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, she asks him, “What does it all mean?” and he replies “I haven’t the faintest idea.” We don’t have to know what it means, exactly, but we keep on with it, evoking the questions if not the answers.
She appeals to him to offer her something with which she can face the uncertainty of the future. There follows a delicate and lovely foray into the music of the spheres, including the oldest known notated piece of music, the Seikolos Epitaph, which translates:
While you live, Shine.
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while,
And Time demands an end.
Having received the big picture from him, the movements of the constellations, she presses him again about the future. “Was that the future speaking to me?” No, he tells her. The future is mute, and “it is ours to create.”
Still she asks for instruction, about how to do that, and again he tells her the answer lies in the past. “It’s all we have.”
So we pull out these “dusty old songs, and odd little dances” every year, and “ … as we pass these things from hand to hand, we scrub off and discard what is passing and trivial, but we keep that which is durable and useful. And so, at their very best, our songs and traditions point us toward the important things that must be done and call on us to find the vision and the courage to make those things happen. And there’s your future.”
Now the chorus begins the inspiring and stirring hymn, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”
I call upon the noble earth
To give me strength both day and night
Her granite and her gems of worth
Are tokens of her various might
And from her shores the endless sea
In calm and tempest girds the sphere
And like the earth, the waters free
Shall be my trust against all fear
Above the earth and waters wide
The air enfolds the globe’s fair breast
In it good spirits do abide,
I count on them in strife and rest
And last of all, the golden fire
Shall be my great and strong ally
The goodly spirits that never tire
Are all my strength below, on high
I bind unto myself today,
The virtues of the starlit heaven
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The wonders of the moon at e’en
The flashing of the lightning free
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Against the old eternal rocks
The song, which has many variations, calls upon all the elements in a stately and measured melody that sounds both religious and pagan. For it is the earth that is our strength and our hope. It’s all we have.
So it is left to the children to pick up the torch, the traditions and the old ways.
The Revels has felt like church to me for a long time. For those of us who were raised with religion, but for many reasons left it behind, we have soldiered on, looking for our spiritual life in every other corner but a church. And yet church imprinted on me at a young age as the place for spiritual matters. I was in love with the look and feel of church – the stained glass, the beautiful vestments, and most of all, the sound of many voices raised together in praise and song. And I can remember Christmas pageants in my church when I was a child, the sheer magic of seeing the Nativity story come to life on Christmas Eve. And then Revels came along in our lives and provided much of this same feeling. I often describe it as a pageant, in a nod to that long ago experience of my childhood.
Every year I return to the question, Why do I revel? And this year, as our beloved company moved through change, we found the answer. Some of us might have asked, What’s the use? Without our old home, how can we move forward?
The use is this: the upholding of tradition, which is not only for us, but for our ancestors. They thrill to hear the old songs sung, to see the old ways enacted. These are our indigenous European traditions, some that reach back in time to the oldest peoples of that land. Over time, the ways blended, and then emigrated. The European culture was brought to these shores by many of our ancestors. In the absence of great grandparents to tell us how things were back in the old days, Revels seeks it out and serves it up.
From the moment I first heard these carols and words and plays on an old audiocassette, I knew I had found my people. My blood knew. When I heard certain Irish music and wanted to stomp my feet to the rhythm, my body knew. I have remained devoted to Revels for coming on three decades now. I have raised my children with it, to give them the seeds of their culture, bidding them remember, remember.
Revels takes music that has been generated by religious feeling, work songs, nature poetry, and weaves all these strands into a kind of secular liturgy that feels sacred, long and deep. The women sing, as they adorn the girl with the raiment of another time and welcome her into the circle, “And the circle keeps on turning, the days turn into nights.”
Thus we welcomed in another turn of the Wheel of the Year in a church, having our own kind of communion and celebration. It felt like coming home.
Or, if you are other parts of the U.S., check here to see if there is a Revels near you! Also at this link is a wonderful online shop of delightful gifts.
All photos but the last by Gabriel Hurley. Many thanks to David Parr, Michele Sullivan, Bill Batty, the California Revels Board, and all the designers, engineers, managers, movers, parents, volunteers, support staff and every singer, musician, dancer, researcher, writer, and participant who tirelessly bring the Revels to life year in and year out.