Holiday Roundup: Playing Christmas (with Christmas plays) a historical pastime
Theatrical performances, of one kind or another, have been associated with Christmas for a very long time. Nativity Plays, of course, began in the middle ages, with Saint Francis of Assisi often credited with creating the first “Nativity Play,” in 1223, when he performed Midnight Mass in Greccio in front of a life-sized Nativity scene that included live animals.
Saint F. sure did like animals.
In Britain, in the Middle Ages, Mummer’s Plays were often performed door-to-door, with actors playing out a wacky story generally (but not always) involving St. George, a doctor with a magic potion, a villainous knight named Slasher, a fool, the Devil and “Old Father Christmas.”
Handel’s “Messiah,” which debuted in 1742 in Dublin as a fundraiser for three debt-relief charities, was performed at Easter time (given that almost none of it is set during the Nativity, most of it dealing with the Passion). It’s debut was at Dublin’s Great Music Hall in Fishamble, appalling local clergy who took to the pulpits to condemn the presentation of the story of Jesus in any place but a church. It’s since become a Christmas staple in music halls and churches, with the popularity of “Sing-Along Messiah” programs adding to the composition’s Christmasy reputation.
And of course, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has turned holiday theatergoing into a pastime almost as traditional as putting up a dead tree in your house or watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on TV.
In the spirit of holiday theatricality, here’s a list of entertaining and community-building holiday activities in and around Petaluma — including one sing-along Messiah and a few theatrical offerings — to warm you up inside and out.
FESTIVAL OF TREES (Friday, Dec. 6, 6-9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 7, 3-9 p.m.) — These aren’t your normal tastefully-decorated ornaments-and-tinsel-and-strings-of-lights trees. The trees on display at Hotel Petaluma are decorated by local artists, businesses, clubs and organizations, with a wild array of themes, styles and degrees of glee, delight and holiday happiness. The trees will then be auctioned off, with the funds received going to local nonprofits (recipients to be announced at the Friday night kickoff). Hotel Petaluma, 205 Kentucky St. Thefabulouswomen.org/festival-of-trees
‘MISS BENNETT: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY’ (Weekends through Dec. 15) — Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s celebrated sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is set during Christmastime at the Darcy’s estate, during which misdirected messages and the well-meaning meddling of relatives (plus the shocking inclusion of a “Christmas Tree”) all lead to merriment, misunderstanding, near disaster and, of course, love. Petaluma’s Eddy Hansen designed the gorgeous set and lighting. Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park. SpreckelsOnline.com.
‘POLAR BEARS’ (Wednesday, Dec. 4 – Sunday, Dec. 15) — Set largely in 1990s Petaluma (with a heart-tugging scene actually taking place at downtown’s Marisa’s Christmas Fantasia), this true one-actor play returns to Sonoma County for six performances at Left Edge Theater, at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. Performed by Mark Bradbury, this acclaimed holiday story was written and directed by the Argus-Courier’s own David Templeton. LeftEdgeTheatre.com.
‘A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL’: (Dec. 6 - Dec. 22) — All your favorite moments from the classic 1983 film — the double-dog dare to lick a frozen pole, the scary Santa, the Old Man’s “fra-gee-lee” lamp, the bunny suit, and Ralphie’s desperate quest for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle — plus singing and dancing too. Directed by Petaluma’s Larry Williams, with a cast of North Bay actors including Petaluma’s Ron Lam, the musical version of Jean Shepherd’s beloved memoir of Christmas will be presented by Sonoma Arts Live, in downtown Sonoma. Sonoma Community Center, Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center, 276 East Napa Street. Thursdays-Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets $28-$42. SonomaArtsLive.org.