One tradition that captures the mystery of mid-winter celebration and is included in many Christmas Revels performances is the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. This age-old procession of ten figures is still enacted each September in Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, England.
In the long-standing local ritual of Abbots Bromley dancing, six men carry sets of caribou horns, followed by a hobby horse, a man dressed as a woman, a boy with a bow and arrow, and a fool who periodically dings a small triangle. The archetypal characters who follow the horn dancers were likely actors in a play that has since been lost and the dance perhaps a part of the dramatic action. Lines of five dancers each approach, retire, cross, and repeat, with some clashing of the horns. The style is sprightly, using many different tunes (including “Yankee Doodle”)
In contrasting style, the Revels tradition uses what Abbots Bromley locals call “The Old Tune” a haunting melody first notated in the 1850s by an Abbots Bromley resident, William Robinson, who said it was old in his time. Revels founder, Jack Langstaff, first saw the dance performed outdoors at twilight in a wooded setting – the dancers appeared, made their serpentine figures, and then disappeared in a way that suggested a never-ending flow of ritual mystery that resonated with his concept of Revels.
When not being used for the dance, the horns in Abbots Bromley (recently carbon-dated to 1065) hang on the walls of the local church. 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 the same Vikings against whom Wulfric defended Mercia in 1010. Nothing is known of the dance at that period, or even if there was such a dance at that time.
The earliest reference in writing appeared in 1686, when Dr. Robert Plot, in A Natural History of Staffordshire, described a dance he called “the hobby horse dance,” involving six sets of caribou horns and a hobby horse. At that time, the dance was done at Christmas.
Since the 19th century, the dance has been performed on the Monday after the first Sunday after September 4th, for reasons no one quite knows. It is an all-day affair performed to several lively tunes with local processions in town and travel to outlying areas. There is much food, drink, singing, and general social merriment throughout the day, and the horns are then retired to the church to wait another year.
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