Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Christmas Revels: Sharq Attack!

When Christ is not at the heart of Christmas, the result is chaos, as you can learn on a drive to the mall this week and as I learned again last evening at the 41st annual edition of the Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre on the Harvard University campus. I moved to the Boston area in 1971, the same year the Revels were first staged here by John Langstaff and his daughter, and fourteen years after Langstaff originated a similar potpourri of song and dance in New York City. Last night, I saw this yuletide tradition for the first time.

You’d have to be a Scrooge to object to this expertly produced, politically correct, multicultural mix of folk traditions, complete with crowd-pleasing audience participation. Who wants to be singled out as a Scrooge at this time of year? That’s why I sat stone silent afterward while surrounded by a group of people who raved over the components of the production—the lively staging, the sprightly medieval and Renaissance music and dance, those costumes (!), the excellent alto from Venezuela, the Sharq Ensemble…

The what?!

That’s Sharq with a q, which means east in Arabic. The Sharq Ensemble, our featured guest, is a perfectly fine trio of musicians, from Egypt, Syria, and Morocco, who present authentic Arab music using traditional acoustic instruments. God knows, the Sharqs may be the finest Arab music traditionalists in the galaxy. Still, what are they doing in a show with Christmas in its title, taking over Act I and then stealing the stage in Act II after a brief Nativity pageant presented by children—the only not-really-overt reference to the Incarnation in an overlong (150-minute) show?

About that Nativity pageant: It was the only one I can remember that claimed the Angel Gabriel was present at the manger, along with shepherds, kings, and a very cute child in an ox head. This non-Biblical event is a symptom of the massive cultural confusion on display. When you say about Christmas that it can be whatever you want it to be—a great big international whatever of Joy! Joy! Joy!—the result is chaos. The result is the Christmas Revels.

If these Revels were ever about Christmas, they have strayed. This year’s program is subtitled “In Celebration of the Winter Solstice,” and its scenes unfold in what we are told is a 16th-century French fishing village that just happens to be waiting for three kings from the East, who are “bringing back the light” and not gold, frankincense, or myrrh. The village is also waiting breathlessly for the Sharq Ensemble or their like, because, you know, the coast of Brittany in the 16th century was such a cultural crossroads, and it gets cold “at this time of year” and we all want to be entertained.

Three central characters play the village fools, in the old courtly medieval sense. Their names are Soleil, Etoile, and Claire de Lune (Sun, Star, and Moon). And there’s something in the script about the light waning and these three characters having to win it back from a skeleton figure who dances around and turns out to be the narrator’s daughter who has really long blond hair when she takes off her black witch’s hat for the curtain call, which earns the standing ovation that is always de rigeur for this kind of happy thing. Oh, and a mirrored sunlike object basically falls out of the Baby Jesus, completing the trifecta of moon, stars, sun and making us all happy ever after.

Did I mention that the effect of this winding, unfocused Christmas-in-quotation-marks is head-scratching?

I was astonished to discover that even the ultra-PC Boston Globe blinked, although it did so while simultaneously tweaking those who care about the Christian meaning of Christmas.

“It would be fun,” Joel Brown wrote, “to drag some of the politicians decrying the supposed ’war on Christmas’ to the Sanders Theatre for this year’s Christmas Revels and watch them try to render a verdict.”

Yes, what fun! The use of the word supposed in that sentence implies that there is no war on Christmas or Christians, and that this war exists only in the overheated imaginations of those silly politicians. But immediately Brown notes the contradiction at the heart of this everything-goes bouillabaisse:

“On one hand, [those politicians] would see people sitting in pews, applauding a Nativity scene, singing traditional carols and warming themselves at the hearth of community. It’s still called the Christmas Revels, not Holiday Revels. On the other hand, the richly rendered pageant centers more on the winter solstice than on Jesus. The guest stars are three Arab musicians. And it takes place in politically correct Cambridge, a short distance from the Occupy encampment in Harvard Yard.”

I’m glad the Globe had the clarity to point out a few facts, even at the risk of appearing to agree with keep-the-Christ-in-Christmas screeds like this one. But about those pews, Joel: Sanders Theatre and Memorial Hall were never meant for religious observance, although this high-Victorian structure built to commemorate Harvard’s Civil War dead is a sort of pseudo-shrine to Unitarian culture.

A striking irony of this year’s Revels is that, although the producers bend over backwards to be inclusive, there is not a single African American face on stage; and while Arab music took over the proceedings twice, I did not recognize one distinctly Jewish cultural reference, even though the overall production reminded my daughter of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

For a production team willing to push Christ to the margins for the sake of diversity, or marketing, those are pretty big oversights.


  1. what a mess. Because we are raising our children as Catholic Christians, I am glad we are offering them a clear, coherent world view. I understand plenty of Catholics end up rejecting that tradition, but at least they are rejecting something they are clear about. I worry about people who are raised in a cultural cacophony.

  2. I just came across your "review" of the 2011 Christmas Revels. How sad that you were so caught up in the dictates of the hierarchy of organized religion (and I, too, am a practicing Catholic) that you failed to perceive the true elements of Christianity inherent in all Christmas Revels productions, including this, a genuine caring about fellow human beings and celebrating God's creations....and that includes the sun, moon and stars (soleil, la lune and etoiles).

    As for your sarcastic comment: "A striking irony of this year’s Revels is that, although the producers bend over backwards to be inclusive, there is not a single African American face on stage", clearly you weren't paying attention (perhaps too busy thinking about the negative things you wanted to write?) otherwise you would have noticed my African-American face right in front for 95% of the production. Perhaps in the future, you might consider doing some homework/ask some questions before you launch into criticisms like this. If nothing else, it will preclude your sounding like an uninformed, biased and contrary individual.

    Hope we see you for Christmas Revels 2012 and God's peace be with YOUR spirit!


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