Tonight is Christmas Eve, 1992. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Tonight, myth and reality
touch -- ordinary things take on extraordinary
meaning. At midnight, we are told, the animals
talk. They tell one another about the birth of the
In the 19th century, a Canadian Indian told a
writer, "On Christmas night all deer kneel and look
up to the Great Spirit." And, perhaps, in the long
cold night of the North, they do.
The Norse also saw mystical power in their forests.
By old Scandinavian tradition, enemies who meet
under the mistletoe of an oak tree must lay down
their weapons and make a truce. The English variant
is kissing. Surely if you and I find the power to
make peace this night, we've done better than that.
The Christmas tree came out of Germany only 200
years ago. Homesick Hessian soldiers put up the
first American Christmas tree in 1776. Those
German/British mercenaries laid off fighting us for
one night -- and decorated their tree.
Northern European emigrants established our
Christmas-tree custom in the early 1800s. The
English adopted it even later.
Our Christmas symbols come down out of the cold
North. And they all tell of preparing for birth and
for rebirth. The elements are coldness waiting for
warmth, quiet waiting for rejoicing, cold stars
over warm hearths, and the healing of wounds.
I heard a powerful expression of that symbolic
content at this year's Christmas Revels. The Revels
is a potpourri entertainment made from folklore.
The great folk singer, Jean Ritchie, was part of
it. We spoke afterward. "Are you a musician?" she
asked. "Only an amateur," I said.
So this Dean of American folk music fixed me with a
sure gaze and said, "I'm also an amateur. I've
always been an amateur." She made it clear that she
was doing what she loved to do. She was doing what
she believed in.
And then I saw. Of course the animals speak
tonight. Tonight we leave left-brain analysis
behind. It's a time to be amateur in all things.
It's a time to listen to the stars the way animals
do. It's a time to see the passing wind.
At the Revels, we all sang a text that Ritchie had
set to an old four-part round tune. The words ask
us to put down our weapons under the mistletoe:
So listen to the animals tonight. Find
your irrational creative core -- find hope that
passes reason. Find a way to disarm your own
enmities. And let hope disarm the rational
limitations that've bound you -- for the last 364
What a goodly thing,
If the children of all men,
Could dwell together,
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Curtis, W., The Second Nature of Things.
Hopewell, N.J.: The Ecco Press, 1992.
The Houston Revels performances took place in Stude
Hall, Rice University, Dec. 12 and 13, 1992. The
round melody was the one I learned years ago to
words with another kind of poignancy:
Since I can't write music in ASCII, I'll
spell out the pitches for each line of this tune (one
half-note per letter with no dotted rhythms.)
Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose,
Wilt thou never marry me,
Ah, marry that I will,
If thou but stay.
e d e low b
e e f# f# g a f#
b a b g a b
b g e low b
To accommodate the different rhythm of her last
line of text Jean Ritchie altered the tune:
For more on the Christmas Revels in Houston and
other cities, see the following website: http://www.revelshou.com/brochure.htm.
The old English practice of mumming, done each year
in Revels, as it was represented in the 1855
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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