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The Washington Revels chorus in the 2006 American Christmas Revels.

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The Promise and Magic of the Season

Approaching its 40th Year, the Christmas Revels Delights the Senses, Including a Sense of Joy and Togetherness

Perhaps purchasing a ticket to the Christmas Revels should come with a word of caution: 'Warning: After experiencing the Christmas Revels, you may never want to celebrate Christmas without it again.'

The uninitiated who attend a performance of the Christmas Revels may expect to take their seat and be entertained by a show on stage before returning to their normal life as the same version of themselves who entered the theater. Instead, the Christmas Revels gives audiences a whole lot more than a stage performance, and in return, it expects more than a passive audience.

The characters on stage engage audience members as invited guests who very nearly become characters themselves. Here, the vaunted fourth wall doesn’t stand a chance. Characters address the audience and invite them to lend their own sounds known as body percussion, which can include tapping, clapping, stomping, snapping etc. In non-Covid years, audience participation might also include singing carols, joining hands in a line dance, or becoming part of the drama. (Due to changing health recommendations, this year’s exact plan is still evolving.)

The overall effect, says Roberta Gasbarre, artistic director and stage director for the Christmas Revels, is warm and homey. “It feels like you are being welcomed back into a holiday tradition that you may never have celebrated before.”

The Christmas Revels is one of many shows performed annually by the Washington Revels, a group that is connected artistically to Revels companies in eight other American cities. Billed as An American Winter Solstice Celebration, this year’s show will be performed at the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo Park, and will feature eight in-person performances December 10, 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19. A video-on-demand of the performance will be available December 21-January 6. Tickets can be purchased online at RevelsDC.org/Christmas-Revels.

Each year, the Christmas Revels has a different theme. Over nearly four decades, the Washington Revels have presented Christmas Revels celebrating many cultures including Celtic, English, French, Russian, African-American, Bulgarian, Nordic, Native American and many more. The professionally staged and directed show includes professional actors and musicians as well as talented amateurs from all walks of life who fill out the ranks of the cast which, this year numbers around 60 people.

This year’s theme is: Reunion, which resonates in at least two ways. First, Gasbarre explains, “It’s a reunion for us and the audience who we have not seen live since December 2019.” (Last year’s show was virtual.) But there’s also a reunion written into this year’s story, which is set in 1870 Washington, DC, at the home of the country’s first African American member of the United States Congress; Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels (whose name, while fitting, is only serendipitously related to the name Washington Revels).

“We chose this setting because it reflects people coming out of a time of great struggle and hardship: the Civil War,” Gasbarre says. “We wanted to reflect what’s going on with our community and how we’re hopefully coming out of the pandemic; how we are shifting to a growing awareness of inequality and how we’re working to make things more equitable and welcoming.”

In the show, Senator Revels and his wife, Phoebe are hosting a party in their elegant parlor “to celebrate and look ahead to what might be forged in our wonderful country,” she continues. “It was a time of hope and of remembering the struggle. So, we feel that this year we want to celebrate this moment in history and this contemporary moment as well.”  

As guests at the Revels’ party celebrate with joyous carols, traditional melodies, heartfelt spirituals and toe-tapping dances, the audience becomes every bit as swept up in the celebration on stage. The artists who bring the story to life include dancers, local folk musicians, the Washington Revels Brass and the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices.

The story also introduces another family preparing for a party. “It’s in a smaller, plainer house in Georgetown which at that time was not the neighborhood of the elite,” Gasbarre says. “Instead, laborers, itinerant travelers, and citizens of the city with little means live in a few rooms while also creating holiday traditions that bring joy.” 

And, she adds, “We’ll see how these two houses come together.”

So as not to reveal a plot twist, she leaves us with, “This Revels reminds us how we can rediscover and refresh lost connections with love, joy, and shared traditions. In a special way, this is a little bit of holiday magic.”

  • The Washington Revels chorus in the 2006 American Christmas Revels.
  • The Teen Chorus plays an important role in every Christmas Revels.
  • The Washington Revels chorus in the 2006 American Christmas Revels.
  •  An audience sing-along. Audience participation is an important part of the Revels experience.