On Old Christmas Eve, we'd sit fore the fire and mom and dad and granny'd tell us about the baby Jesus born in a stable on this night, and they'd say if we'd go out at midnight we'd see the old elderberry bush blooming in the fence corner right in the snow, and if we peeped in through a chink in our stable and made no racket at all, we'd see the cow and the old mule kneeling -- paying honor to the little King of Kings. Then maybe granny would sing us her Christmas Carol -- "Brightest and Best" in the old mountain tune -- and we'd all sing some . . . That used to be our Christmas. It was good, peaceful kind of time.
-- From "Singing Family of the Cumberlands"
The author of those words, Appalachian folk singer and dulcimer player Jean Ritchie, will join more than 100 local musicians, dancers and actors to celebrate the winter solstice and the holiday season with American traditional music, drama, poetry and dance at Lisner Auditorium tonight through Sunday. There are matinees tomorrow and Sunday as well.
Although first staged in Washington only two years ago, the Christmas Revels have been delighting holiday audiences in Cambridge, Mass., for 16 years. The show was originally produced in 1956 at Town Hall in New York City by John Langstaff, who remains the Revels' artistic director and featured soloist. But as Ritchie recalls, the Revels began in a much cozier fashion.
"Back in the late '40s [in New York] I heard about these Christmas parties that Jack [John] Langstaff's parents had," she says. "They lived in Brooklyn Heights in an old brownstone. I was invited one year and the whole house was lit entirely with candles, from top to bottom. It was really something out of an old English storybook.
"Refreshments were all around and when it got time to sing, we'd all gather in the living room and Mrs. Langstaff would give everybody a part to sing in 'The Twelve Days of Christmas.' I'd sing, and so would Carol [Langstaff Duveneck, John Langstaff's daughter and the Revels' stage director]. Later, when they got the idea of taking this out of the home and onto the stage, it started out as an old family Christmas party."
The producers say this year's Revels will feature some parts of previous productions, including "The Lord of the Dance" and the "Sussex Mummer's Carol," but much of the performance will be unfamiliar to Washington audiences. Included will be a Kentucky running set dance, traditional Shaker songs, Moravian brass music, New England shape-note hymns and Appalachian folk carols.
This year the stage set is based on the Viper, Ky., cabin where Ritchie was born in 1922. The youngest of 14 children, Ritchie is the descendant of Appalachian pioneers believed to have settled in 1768. Her childhood amid the rugged southern Appalachian Mountains and her family's tradition of passing English, Scottish and Irish songs from one generation to the next were captured in her heartwarming 1955 book, "Singing Family of the Cumberlands."
"It's very flexible," says Ritchie of her role in the Revels. "This year they're using several of my songs and I'll be telling stories from my book. The chorus will join in on some of the songs. There'll be songs my family sang and old traditional ballads. I'll play the dulcimer a little and tell my sister's story about the first Christmas tree and Granny's celebration of Old Christmas. It's not scripted, and I never tell the same thing twice, anyway."
Ritchie is a modest, soft-spoken woman. She says the music in her house was always taken for granted. Her father's dulcimer was "as much a household furnishing as the churn or the hunting rifle . . . music was just part of life. You really had to make your own fun back then. There was really no way of hearing music outside of the community so we all had to entertain ourselves. I guess that's why we've remembered the songs as long as we have."
A social work major at the University of Kentucky, Ritchie went to New York in 1947 to work at the Henry Street Settlement. She soon married and later retired from social work to devote time to her family (two children) and her music. She has since recorded more than 40 albums, compiled numerous songbooks and written "about 50 songs," many of them dealing with the hardships of modern life in Appalachia. Along the way, she played a key role in popularizing the mountain dulcimer.
"I get letters about the dulcimer from some of the most unlikely countries now," Ritchie says, marveling at the instrument's widespread acceptance. "When I first came to New York no one knew what it was."
For Christmas Revels ticket information, call 657-3285.