After the Ceili while the travelers slept late Christmas night on the Queenstown wharf in County Cork, Ireland, awaiting the arrival of the ship that would take them to Boston, a strange procession made their way in the moonlight. Some held deer antlers aloft but there were also additional characters: the Folk Fool, the Man-Woman or Maid Marian, the Hobby Horse and the Boy Archer. The magical notes of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance led the group in spiraling dreamlike steps. Antlers clacked together as the men approached each other in two rhythmic lines, in greeting, in competition, in gratitude. And after they wove and dipped and clacked and skipped, as the music slowed and the recorder faded, they slipped off the stage and melted into the crowd.
This was part of my magical Christmas treat at the Christmas Revels which this year celebrated music and stories of Ireland and the British Isles around 1900. Directed by David Parr, this was the 25th anniversary of the Revels at the Oakland, California, Scottish Rite Center. My husband and I had attended once before years ago and I had found it charming. This year, in the spirit of “Consumables!” I wanted something wonderfully Christmas-y, something with unmistakable holiday spirit.
In the past, we have threatened to attend the Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus sing-along but never quite made it. We tried the Oakland Ballet’s Nutcracker Suite, somewhat less overwhelming than the San Francisco production but no less fun. And we’ve traveled on a family pilgrimage to San Juan Bautista to watch El Teatro Campesino for Christmas musical wonder. We’ve taken the ferry into San Francisco to watch the skaters at Union Square and visited the Macy’s Christmas window displays. My favorite of those was the Mouse Christmas where all the mice were celebrating tiny mousey holiday treats, decorating tiny trees and giving mouse presents under the floorboards of human houses. All the creatures were stirring and it was holiday perfection.
This year I had hoped to take our friend Gerry, the one who crawls through her window when she’s locked herself out of the house, to the Revels because Gerry is about as Irish as they come. And, betting that the Christmas Revels would not be singing, “The Last Rose of Summer,” a beautiful Irish song that sends Gerry into Mood Indigo, I figured this would be the perfect holiday mood-setter. What better than the Ireland that her grandparents and parents knew, at a happy but wistful time, Christmas, with family, yet embarking for America and likely never to see the family in Ireland again.
Best laid plans and all that: Gerry got flu-like symptoms from the whooping cough shot and, miserably over-apologizing (really, dear, it’s OK), she had to bow out. With three tickets and two people, John called his cousin David, found that his wife Wendy was glad to have him out of the house for a few hours, and we had our happy substitute. We barely made it to the show on time, got to our seats and the magic of Christmas began. We were transported to Queenstown in County Cork in 1900, where the Irish, English and Welsh, dressed in their warm traveling clothes and dragging their steamer trunks assembled on the dock, waiting for the ship that will take them to their new lives.
The show started with a medley overture, next, a 12th century song from Ireland, the Wexford Carol and went on to provide us with stories and songs, solos and sing-alongs that embodied the spirit of Christmas. There was no Santa Claus. There was no manger scene. There were adults and children dancing and singing, showing the season’s best and giving us a glimpse into the traditions we in America find curious and wonderful.
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance comes to us from the village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, England. It has been a family tradition in that village with the Bentley and Fowell families for centuries and is still performed today. The antlers used by the “deer men” in Abbots Bromley are actually reindeer antlers and have been carbon dated back to the 11th century. The basic concept of the dance is a thank you for allowing the villagers to hunt, but it is also a remnant of “sympathetic magic” acting out a successful hunt and bounty for all. The traditional village production of the Horn Dance occurs in September, but it also has ties to Christmas time. It shows the universal need to thank a higher power for gifts and hope for good things in the time to come, plenty for all. I love the Revels recorder music and the after-midnight dance because it echoes the magical traditions of Christmas: If you squint, you can see a semi-Santa in the Maid Marian who is a bearded man in a dress, with the deer like reindeer, the Boy Archer like an elf. It’s just a little different in the moonlight.
Much of the show was for the child in all of us, with the youngest performers dancing a “stitching” game, holding hands in a line and leading the line under the next two dancers’ arms. An Irish story edited by William Butler Yeats called “The Soul Cages” told us of the friendship between a young man and a magical creature half-man, half-fish called the Coomarra. We learned how to count sheep so that the faerie folk will not take them: Ain, tain, otherow, pothero, pitts. Umfit, cumfit, ethero, petherow, potts. No lost sheep! We sang The Holly and the Ivy and Lord of the Dance and a round in Latin, Dona Nobis Pacem. The Morris Men danced and the Cutty Wren was celebrated.
This was the winter solstice performance of the Christmas Revels. It’s only fitting today to note that not only do we experience the longest night this winter solstice but a rare full lunar eclipse, visible to most in North America tonight. The last time we had a full lunar eclipse on the solstice was 1368, so those clouds outside this afternoon better get on their way. I plan to stay up to see the red, red moon tonight. Moonlight can be deceptive in its own right, as reflected in the Tarot. Are your eyes deceiving you? Is there more to this story than you know? Think you'll ever know? The full moon’s light made red by the shadow of the earth between it and the sun must be magical indeed. Is that a man in a red suit with eight tiny reindeer or Maid Marian with how many Deer Men? Ain, tain, otherow, pothero, pitts….
Gerry, don't worry. We will do something else when you feel better!
Want to know more about the fun and affordable California Revels, a bargain in the Bay Area with convenient and safe parking? Visit http://www.calrevels.org/ and get on their mailing list.
How about more adventure at Christmastime with El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, California, an unforgettable performance in the historic mission right on the San Andreas Fault? Visit: http://www.elteatrocampesino.com/