Portland Revels events are steeped in seasonal traditions. We present these traditions through song, dance, poetry and performance. Here are some of the most popular traditions and where they came from.

The mummers play from Revels 2004 French Medieval show
The mummers play from Revels 2004 French Medieval show


Every Christmas Revels performance includes a mummer’s play. This traditional enactment of death and rebirth finds its roots in primitive ceremonies held throughout Europe to mark important stages in the agricultural year. In a traditional mummer’s play a character is killed and is then resurrected (usually by a quack doctor). In the Christmas Revels, the play is representative of the character’s hope to “drive the dark away” and celebrate the Winter Solstice “the shortest day,” and the beginning of longer days and springtime rebirth to come.

Each Christmas Revels mummer’s play is based in part on the show’s theme. For example, in our 2013 Christmas in Old Europe, the mummer’s play was performed by four Bulgarian Kukeri. For more on mumming:

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

Abbots Bromley Book

One part of many winter Revels performances that captures the mystery of mid-winter celebration is the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, an age-old procession of 10 to 12 figures, six men carry sets of caribou horns, followed by a hobby horse, Maid Marian (usually a man dressed as a woman), a boy with a bow and arrow, and a fool who periodically dings a small triangle, The Revels dance choreography was inspired by an all-day procession still done each September in the tiny town of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, England. The dance is serpentine and includes a figure in which lines of five dancers each approach and retire and cross and repeat, with some clashing of the horns.

History of the horns: The horns in Abbots Bromley, which for the rest of the year hang on the walls of the local church, have been carbon dated to 1065. At least one historian of the dance has identified them with an 11th century monk named Wulfric, counselor to King Ethelred and founder of a Benedictine Abbey on whose land the village was founded in 1004. He speculates that the horns were from caribou brought in by Vikings, possibly those against whom Wulfric defended Mercia in 1010.Horn Dance

The dance was adapted to the Christmas Revels by John Langstaff and is done in Revels fashion to a haunting tune first notated in the 1850′s by an Abbots Bromley resident, William Robinson who said it was old in his time. Its appeal is the appeal of ancient ritual: it cannot be explained, only experienced, with no ready understanding of the figures or the movements except a sense that it has to do with hunting and takes us back to a time when, in a rural setting where hunting was crucial to survival, some even more ancient invocation to the hunt’s victim was practiced — every winter, and always in the same way.

Lord of the Dance and Morris Dancing

At the conclusion of the first part of every Christmas Revels, the chorus and audience join in a serpentine song and dance, based on Sidney Carter’s song, “Lord of the Dance,” an adaptation of the Shaker song, “‘Tis a Gift To Be Simple.”

The song and dance is a brief experience of shared celebration and is, for many, the community high point of the show. Since Morris dancing has long been centrally connected to celebrations of the return of spring, this joining of audience and chorus is introduced by a unique Morris dance choreographed by Carol Langstaff in Cambridge in 1971 for the first Christmas Revels. The dance features steps taken from five village Morris traditions. They are danced by two dancers at stage center until the song ends and dancers and chorus members dance with the audience around the theater.

Portland Revels presents The Christmas Revels 2010, Spanish TreasureMorris dancing, which can be traced back to the mid-15th century, is a festive dance form, sporting bells and ribbons, long associated with towns and villages in the south Midlands of England. Its origins may lie on the European continent and until the mid-16th century, it seems to have been mostly an entertainment at court or among the gentry.

In towns and villages throughout the southwest region of England men formed teams of six dancers, plus a fool, hobby horse, and someone to collect the money, got a musician and during the spring and summer performed a set of dances unique to their village. It was a colorful, often rowdy kind of street theater, costumed and spirited, usually emphasizing fertility and the good luck of the Morris. Revived in the late 19th century after a period of decline, it has become again a widespread part of English culture and has spread to many other countries, including America, Canada, Australia, and even Hong Kong. Historically danced mostly by men, Morris is now danced by men’s teams, women’s teams, and mixed teams.

More about Morris Dancing: