Christmas Music (3)–Best Christmas Revels album

Ah, a bit of a problem here. There’s a whole bunch of them, but they’re all only ok if you’ve actually ever attended a Revels. None of them quite captures the real spirit of a real Revels show, which itself is a joyful, chaotic affair of boundless good cheer, occasional sloppy singing, and a fair measure of audience involvement. That’s what I miss the most about not being able to go to them regularly now–the magical moments from a Revels show usually come when the audience is belting away at one of the carols, particularly Lord of the Dance or the Sussex Mummers Carol, or when everyone belts out Wolcum Yole! at the end of the wonderful Susan Cooper Poem, The Shortest Day, or in that particularly lovely part of the show when everyone in the audience is quietly tapping one foot to accompany that haunting recorder solo. And the CDs, fine as they are, just don’t capture that.

This year is the 39th anniversary of the Revels, by the way, and for those of you in the Boston/Cambridge area, there are still some tickets available (with, I have no doubt, a limited view–but take what you can get). The most representative of the CDs is probably To Drive the Dark Away, which is actually what the revels celebrations are all about–but there’s actually a whole raft of them.

The founder and long-time artistic muse of the Revels, John Langstaff, died in 2005. Here’s the tribute from the Revels website, with links, and an obituary from The Washington Post. The Revels appreciation has links to other articles about Langstaff. A full, rich life, and what a wonderful legacy. Another good man lost.

There may be some of you that have never been to a Revels. Well, geography is no longer much of an excuse. There are Revels in lots of areas other than Cambridge. If you live in or near Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Oakland, Santa Barbara, Houston, Boulder, Washington DC, New York, or Hanover New Hampshire, you can probably still pick up tickets for some of the best times you will have this holiday season. And suitable for children in most cases, other than the fact that performances are usually in the evening. Here’s a list of Revels around the country.

The Revels shows we have been to almost always have some sort of theme. This year in Cambridge, for example, it’s a North America Christmas. The California Revels is doing a Celtic theme. These will change year by year, and some, frankly, work better than others. To some extent, that’s a function of the fact that what the Revels is grounded in is a batch of traditions that essentially come out of Northern Europe—mainly Britain, France, Germany and the Nordic areas. This is, in fact, where many of the most enduring Christmas traditions do come from. But this doesn’t always work as a vehicle for trying to adapt the Christmas traditions of other cultures. The most disappointing Revels we attended in Boston was the Mexican one—it just didn’t work, for a variety of reasons, one of which was probably the fifteen minute version of some really depressing song about The Day of the Dead. On the other hand, the Eastern European one, which is actually out of the Orthodox tradition, was wonderful, so you never know. It’s always worth the trip.

So the problem with the Revels albums themselves isn’t with the quality of the singing or the production—it’s that it doesn’t capture the experience of actually being at the Revels themselves. But so what? It doesn’t matter, really. Sort of like the problem with albums of Christmas concerts by college choirs. One of my most treasured albums is one that I’m not sure is available any more, since I got it through the Book of the Month Club years ago, called College Choirs at Christmas. It’s great, even though the recording quality is a bit uneven. But it has some wonderful singing and song selection. Actually, I’m a bit spoiled here in London, because there are all these albums by the choirs of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and these choirs are as close to professional quality as you can get. There aren’t many US university choirs that are close to this. But so what?

So here’s what you do. Odds are that no matter where you live, it’s near some university or college. And odds are there’s a music department there. And odds are the choir or chorus of that department is doing a Christmas concert. And odds are you can determine this pretty quickly with a google search. And odds are it will be one of the best things you do this holiday season. Especially if you can get to a Revels too.

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