In December 1907, when the passenger ship SS Furnessia set sail for New York from Londonderry in Northern Ireland, the passengers were poised, as so many immigrants are, between hope and loss. They were leaving behind their homes, and they were hoping that the new life they sought in America would fulfill their dreams. On the approximately 10 days’ passage aboard this transatlantic steamer, they came together by sharing holiday traditions of all sorts — dances, songs, stories, and games — all intended to create a festive spirit to allay their fears and feed their imaginations of the New World with positive feelings of community.
It’s this historical voyage, and a wide range of holiday entertainments that could have been part of it, that this year’s Santa Barbara Revels has set out to portray. Revels, a national institution that curates and presents diverse solstice holiday traditions through historically faithful performance, is set to go on the weekend before Christmas at the Lobero Theatre. After Revels was forced to cancel several performances due to last year’s Thomas Fire, this upcoming trio of shows stands to be the most important weekend yet for the company.
With more than 70 performers and a loyal following, it’s as honest and heartfelt a holiday celebration as any community anywhere could possibly wish for, and it ought to elicit an outpouring of support. Revels’ unique combination of seasonal cheer and painstaking archival research puts it into a category of its own when it comes to family holiday spectacles. The devotion that Revels has inspired among our city’s top actors, singers, and dancers testifies to the special feeling of authentic community it was created to engender. At each Revels performance, there’s always something to learn and something to cherish as a reminder that these holiday traditions are older and more enduring than any commercial fad.
This year the whole show is understood to take place on the decks of a steamer as it makes its way to Ellis Island, and when, on Christmas Eve, the ship’s passengers catch sight of the Statue of Liberty, the ensuing celebration merges holiday feeling with American patriotism. Along the way, there’s much to discover. For example, the carol known as “Deck the Halls” began as a Welsh New Year’s tune called “Nos Galan.” Dancers would improvise verses as they moved in a circle around the harp, whose instrumental parts are now rendered by the vocalese “fa la la la las.” Story songs such as “The King Has …” will be performed by excellent area actors, including Jason Bowe, Bill Egan, Meredith McMinn, Josh Jenkins, Rich Hoag, and Courtney Simpson. Music-hall numbers will alternate with more serious songs, such as “Down by the Salley Gardens,” which is a musical setting of a poem by the great Irish writer W.B. Yeats.
Audiences can participate in the traditional “Lord of the Dance” and then relish the pairing of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” with Isaac Watts’s “Joy to the World.” As produced and directed by Santa Barbara Revels founder Susan Keller, this is a holiday tradition you won’t want to miss.
The Christmas Revels: An Irish Celebration of the Winter Solstice takes place Saturday, December 22, 2:30 and 7:30pm, and Sunday, December 23, 2:30pm, at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call 963-0761 or see lobero.org.