Reveling With the Revels

Celebrate the season with Scottish traditions.


California Revels picks a different theme every year. This time around, it’s Scottish, appropriate for a Scottish Rite setting.

Courtesy California Revels

This December, Oakland Scottish Rite Center will live up to its name. Every year, California Revels picks a different cultural or historical theme for its annual Christmas Revels in the center’s spacious auditorium, and the 32nd annual Christmas Revels will be “A Scottish Celebration of the Solstice.”

“That’s kind of important,” Revels artistic director David Parr says of the “Solstice” phrasing. “Of course, every year we do a show that demonstrates how somebody celebrates the solstice, but in Scotland, the solstice is more about the turning of the year and the coming of the New Year than it is about Christmas per se. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-’70s, I guess, that Christmas got much traction in Scotland at all. Prior to that, it really was not a major event. So the focus is much more on what’s called in Scotland Hogmanay, which is the celebration of the New Year. There’s a lot of Scottish ceremony built around that event.”

So, what do these Scottish rites entail? “When you say Scottish, people pretty much get an image of what you’re going to be doing,” Parr said. “We’ll have Scottish country dancing, of course, and a bagpipe. We have a wonderful local piper. We’ve got a lot of really lovely music, a lot of very nice fiddle music. And then we have the Scottish poet. The show this year is actually in the 18th century, and that’s very purposeful, because that’s the time of Robbie Burns, the great Scottish poet. So, there’s a good helping of Burns poetry in the show. He’s not actually playing the character of Burns, but the person who will be reciting most of the Burns poetry is a local actor, Julian López-Morillas.”

Amid all the warm celebration of the season, the show promises a few thrills and chills as well. The Scottish show has one thing in common with Shakespeare’s infamous “Scottish Play”: a coven of witches.

“We haven’t done this in the Scottish shows before, but we’re actually doing an enactment of the Robbie Burns poem ‘Tam o’Shanter,’” Parr said. “The story is very similar to ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ only Tam is a more dissolute character than Ichabod Crane. He leaves his pub one night and stumbles upon an abandoned church where there’s a witches’ sabbath in progress. He watches the dance and is led to exclaim how well they’re dancing. He yells out, ‘Weel done, Cutty-sark!’ Cutty-sark is the garment worn by one of the dancers, and when he shouts that, they notice him, and all the witches and warlocks go in pursuit of Tam, who hops on his horse and must ride to a bridge over running water, because witches and bad spirits can’t pursue you over moving water.”

Though every year’s show has a different cultural focus, from Venice to Russia to Appalachia to King Arthur’s court, this isn’t the first Scottish Revels the group has performed.

 “This will be the third time we’ve gone to Scotland in the 30-plus years of our existence,” Parr said. “The last time we did a Scottish show was in 2004, so we do a Scottish show every 13 years whether we want to or not. It’s a little bit sad, because 2004 was the last year that our founder, Lisby Mayer, was in our show. She passed away right after that show.”

Founded in 1986 by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, California Revels is a local offshoot of a celebration that happens in several cities across the country, blending traditional song and dance with ritual and pageant-like folk plays. The original and longest-running Christmas Revels was started

in 1971 by the late singer and educator John Langstaff in Cambridge, Mass.

Regardless of the setting of any individual year’s Revels, there are certain songs and dances rooted in English folk tradition that are part of the show every year.

 “We have what we call our touchstone elements,” Parr said. “Those are ‘The Lord of the Dance,’ which is our big song and dance where the whole audience joins hands and dances into the lobby at the end of the first act; the Sussex Mummers’ Carol, which is the song that we end the show with; the poem ‘The Shortest Day’ and the Abbots Bromley Antler Dance.”

There may be a few English flavors stirred into the haggis, but these Revels promise enough Scottish revelry to celebrate Hogmanay in style—if a little early. And you can certainly bet it’ll involve some singing of that old Robert Burns favorite “Auld Lang Syne.”


Christmas Revels, Dec. 8-10, 15-17, 8 p.m. Fridays, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, $20-$65, Scottish Rite Auditorium, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, 510-452-9334,


This article was published in the December issue of our sister publication, The Monthly.

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