"Christmas Gif" vs 'Christmas Gift'
This past week I had the honor of speaking with Nolan Williams, Jr., conceiver and director of Christmas Gift, playing at the Kay Theatre in Clarice Smith Center at University of Maryland this Friday Dec 14th and Saturday Dec 15th at 8pm. Buy tickets here.
Nolan Williams, Jr. is the CEO of NEWorks Productions. It's a labor of love. His company has taken on directing and composing musical works and arts projects, grassroots marketing for major motion pictures and collaborations with major arts and educational organizations such as the Kennedy Center and the University of Maryland. Nolan says he is very proud to have created a company that stands behind core principals of using music and the arts to educate and inspire. His company only takes on projects that make a difference in the DC community and beyond.
Steven Newsome, who was former director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and director of the Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center, introduced Nolan to the book "Christmas Gif", an anthology of Christmas poems, songs and stories written by and about African Americans. This book is full of rich African American history and works originally compiled in 1963 by the pioneering Chicago Public Library librarian, author and storyteller Charlemae Hill Rollins. As a librarian and lover of literature Charlemae was approached by many parents who were seeking Christmas literature for their children. There was much positive African American literature at that time, but it often proved difficult to find. Charlemae had the wisdom to compile and create a book to share these stories among the masses. It was the first time anyone did what she did. Once Nolan read the book he could immediately see it as a production, weaving together songs stories and poems. Nolan Williams, Jr.'s production of 'Christmas Gift' is dedicated to Steven Newsome who passed earlier this year.
Nolan and I discussed the holiday traditions of music, food and literature portrayed in the production of Christmas Gift - it is a production that affirms the value of family, friends and really spending time with folks you love. It also affirms kindness to strangers.
We further discussed Christmas Gift's original meaning and what about the production makes it edgy and provocative:
Nolan Williams, Jr.:
There was a time in the African American community when people would meet on Christmas day and play a game where the first person to shout “Christmas Gif” – would receive a gift from another person. Then in preparation for Christmas, say if you were a baker, you would make an extra batch of cakes. Or if you were a wood worker – perhaps you would carve something. At this time in history people took pride in making their gifts and in this process and in playing the game "Christmas Gif" they would share an extension of themselves. While we have no way of knowing how widespread the practice was, "Christmas Gif" was practiced on a large-enough scale in regions of the South that African American writers like Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African-American to gain national prominence as a poet, documented this practice in one of his poems, "Speakin' o' Christmas".
This sort of cultural tradition reminds us of the importance of random acts of kindness among friends and strangers. "Christmas Gif” reminds people to share an extension or part of themselves out of good will. It also encourages all to embrace the simplicity of Christmas and avoid some of the busy commercialization the holiday brings. It is important to be reminded of the simplicity of the holidays and to bring back the true holiday spirit of giving.
Christmas Gift is not your common holiday Christmas production... It’s a different kind of event that adds to a rich landscape of Christmas productions here in the District.
In discussing elements that make this production unique, Nolan shared that the production incorporates Adinkra symbols and proverbs drawn from West African traditions.
He also shared about a segment of the production that subtly addresses a provocative aspect of the "Christmas Gif" tradition -- that it was
also embraced by slave owners & Southern whites who would intentionally "lose" and, in some cases, would give money to the enslaved.
The production addresses the tension between races. Interestingly enough in 2012 there are still issues of reconciliation – within the production there is a piece called ‘the legend of the Black Madonna’ by Margret Appleguard and it challenges all to reconsider their prejudices.
You see, when works are put together well they have the ability to give people a ‘wow’ moment – even 2 or 3 days later. This production is designed to do just that. It also speaks to more than just African American Culture.
This is an important part of the production because it addresses how an exchange between cultures is critical. When you look at our country as a whole we are at our best when we are not at odds with each other and when we are open to sharing and appreciating our varying cultural traditions.
In many respects there isn’t as much that divides us as you may think – in your family there are folk who love and hate fruit cake – same thing in mine. Same thing when it comes to being pinched on the cheeks and family gatherings. Through this holiday production people of all kinds have an opportunity to see how much we have in common -- in our celebration of Christmas and beyond.
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