By Jessie Pew, dramaturg
Christmas Around the World is a well-established tradition at Brigham Young University, with this year’s production marking its 60th appearance in the BYUarts season. While primarily a cultural celebration, there is always a theme arching over the production and informing the text and music performed in between the dance numbers. Previous years have seen themes, most recently, “A Light in the Window” (2019), which highlighted the importance of cultural roots being maintained despite immigration, and promoted empathy and compassion for those who have had to leave their ancestral homes against their will. With such a lofty preceding theme, the 2021 theme, “Rejoice” can seem rather simple in comparison. However, I think more than ever, today we are aware that rejoicing is not an inherently simple action.
Etymologically speaking, the word “rejoice” presents a point of interest. It is a variation of the word “joy”, which is commonly defined as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”, which I think is well within the bounds of how we typically consider the word rejoice. However, the prefix “re” is where my interest was piqued. This word-forming element first emerged (near as we can tell) in the 1200s from Old French and Latin, both with the meanings of turning back, renewing, coming back again to an original place. In that sense, “rejoice” can also be seen as “returning to joy”—a beautifully hopeful concept; the idea that even when we have lost sight of light, we can always find it again.
As the world continues to experience and feel the effects of COVD-19, we are in the midst of universal heartache and trauma. While life is never perfect, and there is always immense suffering present in the world, now we are currently facing a nearly unprecedented phenomenon: a global population united in experiencing, in various ways, the effects of the same antagonist. There is not a single person who hasn’t suffered in some way, lost loved ones or opportunities, or faced considerable hardship due to COVID-19 and connected events. For many, the year 2020 felt like a year in unwilling stasis: life could not continue as normal, and no one really knew how to cope with it. For me, I often felt like even breathing carried an extra weight to it. People were isolated, scared, and uncertain. For the most part, many of us are still variations of all of these things.
With Christmas Around the World this year, there is a conscious effort to highlight celebration and joy. In many cases, such as in Hopak, folk dances evolved from a need to rejoice in the wake and aftermath of war and fear. American pioneers, who had next to nothing and faced a seemingly barren desert to build a new home in, danced in families and as friends to celebrate the good God provided them. The Israeli Na’ara is a beautiful tribute to and celebration of the lives of loved ones who have passed on. Dance provides a powerful outlet whereby our fears and sorrows can be translated and changed into a renewal of joy in life.
Beyond this, this holiday season, regardless of what you celebrate—Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, Solstice, or various New Year’s—there is an urge to rejoice, even with the hardships at hand. Even in ancient times, early Christians would rejoice in the coming of their Savior, despite the heartache many of them faced in the face of King Herod. Hanukkah is celebrated in remembrance of Jerusalem being recovered and the Second Temple being rededicated; another instance of celebration in the aftermath of and continued sorrow and fear. Many celebrate the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, despite the literal extended darkness of the day. Regardless of the circumstances, traditions, and faiths associated with these holidays, there almost seems to be a need to rejoice.
All of this goes to say, in the world at large and here at BYU, there is a collective need to “return to joy.” Heartache, trials, and confusion still, and will continue, to abound. We will always need to adapt to new versions of “normal,” make sacrifices we would rather avoid, and mourn for what we lose and miss out on. However, we can (and should) always seek our own “great pleasures and happiness(es),” despite the darkness surrounding us. When we look for light, we are often surprised by the abundance in which we find it.
Here we are standing, despite it all. What a wonderful reason to rejoice.