Standing in the heart of the National Museum of American History, one witnesses these not-so-chilly scenes of winter:
Bostonian Doug Lipman is telling tales out of school, supporting his stories with melodies and gestures and finding dozens of eager eyes focused on his telling of the Hanukah story about the hard-pressed tailor able to create something out of nothing. Looking for gift suggestions, he doesn't have to go further than Gina and Leon Michiline and Nobel and Noel Yeckley, all between 11 and 13, all from the Laurel area and all eyes and ears.
"And what would you like?" Lipman asks. The question elicits several travel motifs ("a 10-speed" and "to bike around the world") and one Frogger ("It's an Atari game," a child explains patiently). Lipman goes along gingerly with every suggestion and the kids respond with honest energy: "If I had a Frogger just right/ then I'd really feel all right/ Just like this tailor sewing . . . "
Dennis Waring sits at a tableful of instruments made out of wood and fantasy. He rosins a bow and cuts loose with a bright mountain tune even as the Singers Madrigale around the corner surround his melody with Hallelujah overlays. Around another corner, the Over the Hill Gang (no, not those Redskins) unpack acoustic instruments and electric memories in the shadow of several rare Stradivarius violins. "You're never too old to have fun with music," says the group's leader, "And you don't have to be real good and you don't have to have expensive instruments." He points to a bass player who seems particularly proud of his galvanized washtub, hunk of clothesline and broomstick.
All this is part of the Smithsonian's traditional Holiday Celebration, being held daily from noon to 5 p.m. through Friday on three floors of at the Museum of American History.There are dozens and dozens of busy bodies enriching these casual encounters with culture: Within warm walls one can experience Christmas, Hanukah and New Year's activities (music, crafts and games) dating back to colonial times. And almost everything is American-Something, reflecting roots that creep back across oceans to diverse homegrounds. "We even have an American-American," boasts Yugoslav-born Flory Jagoda after introducing Czech-American, Bavarian-American and Latvian-American members of a string band whose music walks the thin line between mourning the old home and celebrating the new sanctuary.
The National Museum of African Art (318 A St. NE) is hosting a separate program on Kwanzaa, centering on traditional African celebrations of the first fruits of harvest, with daily storytelling by the Nubian League Theatre at noon and craft workshops for children at 2 p.m.
Frank D'Angelo of Philadelphia is deep purple. Furry and feathery from head to toe, with rows of sequin for flash, D'Angelo is in the middle of a lineup of Mummers and New Year's Shooters, blowing heartily into a saxophone and strutting in place. Looking like a captured and trained offspring of the NBC Peacock and the Pink Panther, the Aqua String Band (mostly saxes and banjos) is playing New Year's Eve music without the hangover. Their costumes are louder than their sound; whoever designed these outfits must have been blind by the time he finished.
The Mummers are holding forth at the Museum of American History, in a film shown twice a day (and live tomorrow). Their song-and-dunce act dates to the 18th century, but came into its own in 1901 with the first great Mummers parade in Philadelphia. "The costumes are geared for New Year's Day and a three-mile parade," D'Angelo confesses, not for an indoor summer's day. Philadelphia's Swedes and Irish started it all, the men dressing up in mothers' and wives' fineries, shooting off guns at midnight, ringing late-night doorbells for pepperpot soup. The exuberant spirit hasn't diminished much and in the audience, on-the-beat clapping breaks out like smiles at a wedding. David Ballard has come up from Colonial Williamsburg wearing a walking stage (point of origin: China) and handling a dowdy puppet who was born in 17th-century Italy and who in emigrating changed his name from Pulsinella to Punch to better fit the English of the 18th century. "Christmas with Punch and Judy" is a backwoods Masterpiece Theatre, a precursor of Saturday morning cartoons and Victorian melodramas. In the course of the play, there are squeals of delight, heartfelt boos and hisses, shouts of encouragement and screamed warnings; the children in the audience also participate.
With his legs showing beneath a cloth-and-wood stage that sometimes turns its back on the audience, Ballard introduces his play with words that could just as well be applied to the feast of free encounters at the Smithsonian:
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, pray how do you do
"If you all happy, me all happy too
"Stay and hear me merry little play
"If me makes you laugh, me needs not make you pay."