The ultimate expression of the holiday season in the German-speaking countries of Europe is a special sense of belonging built around the concept of gemütlichkeit, a word that literally means “coziness” but connotes a special time and feeling of community solidarity through festive behavior. This year, the Santa Barbara Revels crew set out to re-create this feeling through a program that chiefly drew on the Christmas and winter holiday traditions of Bavaria, circa 1800. Frau Holle (Diane Stevenett) was there, shaking out her featherbed of snow as the gargoyle-like creatures known as die perchten clowned around her and shook their bells. Much of the evening’s action was presided over by Simon Williams as Sankt Nikolaus, the similarly generous but thinner and more equivocal version of Santa who’s common in Bavaria. Sankt Nikolaus dresses in green rather than red and goes about with a staff and a book, checking off names against his notorious list of those who have been either naughty or nice. Sankt Nikolaus has a companion, Knecht Ruprecht (Matt Tavianini), whose hoofed feet and switch make him a rather impish bad cop to Saint Nik’s good one. Together, they toyed with the audience all night, waving the big book around and finding that, even when people had been nice much of the time, there was always at least one scandal over in the naughty column. This routine allowed for the traditional Revels element of audience participation to flourish, as unsuspecting patrons were plucked from their seats and made to stand onstage while Sankt Nikolaus revealed such dastardly crimes as “taking 11 items to the express register at Trader Joe’s when it says no more than 10!”
The laughter of this Revels was fully complemented with carefully rehearsed sequences of song and dance, such as the wonderfully festive delivery of the Christmas tree down the aisles as the men of the Solstice Singers sang “O Tannenbaum.” No visit to Bavaria would be complete without a stop at the biergarten, and this one came with a lovely circle dance for couples, accompanied by the oompah-pah of Die Biergarten Musikmeisters. For the lederhosen fanatics in the crowd, the big number was the schuhplattler dance, in which Heather Heyerdahl and Richard Julian shared their talents at the waltz, and Julian demonstrated the fabled shoe-slapping male display dance. As in all the fun rituals of Revels, as soon as it started, you somehow just knew that there was another shoe that was going to get slapped, and indeed the audience members who were brought onstage to join in the practice fared remarkably well.
Women’s and children’s choruses each added something irreplaceable to the atmosphere, with the women singing “The Holly and the Ivy” and the children taking up “Kling, Glöckchen,” or “Ring, Little Bell.” In addition, the children’s chorus participated in a pageant of lanterns that was fashioned after the German holiday feast of St. Martin. Children also took center stage in a wild and wooly Grimm-style fairy-tale story about the legend of Sankt Nikolaus.
Not everything was as Bavarian as the alphorn that sounded to begin Act Two, but even the very English “Lord of the Dance” that ended Act One took on a European tinge, thanks to wonderful costumes. Likewise, the delightful “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance,” a hunting ritual from Staffordshire, melded easily with the alpine theme. It was followed by the mother of all Christmas carols, at its most beautiful in its German form, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.” With much more to go, including Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” Revels had already delivered on its Bavarian promise — gemütlichkeit to all, and to all a good night.