With Christmas fast approaching, I was looking for something to get me in the mood, something festive and traditional. Every now and again I look through the old bound copies of the St Nicholas magazines which sit on the bottom shelves of my bookcase. Today I opened the oldest of the volumes, from
1906, and found a series of suggestions for Christmas Tableaux.
Does anyone still stage Christmas Tableaux? And what are its origins?
According to my Google research, this website claims the concept of “tableaux” is a shortened version of the French “tableaux vivant”, meaning living pictures. Apparently these were popular forms of entertainment in the mid nineteenth century. A tableaux performance consisted of a group of
actors or people posing in scenes from art, literature, history or everyday life, for a period of at least thirty seconds. This form of entertainment spread from England to America where it was also often used on floats in parades.
I recall reading of such performances in pre-revolutionary Russia, where my grandmother and her sisters took part in tableaux for audiences. I think they posed as characters from history, but I am not sure. I’ll have to try to find what my grandmother wrote about those performances.
I can imagine it would have been easy for tableaux performances to begin to include Christmas themes, especially the Nativity scene. In the St Nicholas magazine there are several suggestions for themes, based on an Old English Christmas, including one where Father Christmas holds court,
another with Christmas carollers, still more picturing Christmas dinners, games and storytelling.
I remember the Catholic kindergarten I attended put on a Nativity play for Christmas but I cannot recollect any holding of poses for thirty seconds, or even shorter. As four or five year olds I doubt we could have stayed still for very long at all!
I wonder what a modern Christmas tableaux would look like. I guess it would depend on individual traditions and ways of celebrating the festive season, as well as which part of the world one lives in. Perhaps Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer would feature together with Santa Claus and some elves? Would there be beach scenes and native animals in countries south of the equator, such as Australia? Maybe scenes of people stringing decorative lights on their houses and properties?
Between each of the suggested Christmas Tableaux in the St Nicholas magazine, along with illustrations, there is a short verse in old English. The final verse reminds us that, once the Christmas festivities are over, the reality of life begins again:
“Yule’s come and Yule’s gane,
And we have feasted weel;
Sae Jock maun to his flail again,
And Jenny to her wheel.”