Holiday play looks at stories behind classic carols

These are the holiday classics nearly everyone knows the words to.

Nearly everyone recognizes the phrases “a partridge in a pear tree” or “12 drummers drumming” from “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” People can easily picture the serenity described in “Silent Night.” The Hanukkah staple “I Have a Little Dreidel” gets stuck in your head, even if you’re not Jewish.

But despite their universal quality and beloved status, questions remain — what are those songs are about, who wrote them, what is their history?

An upcoming performance hopes to dig into those and other curiosities. Local residents are invited to take a historic leap back into holiday music during “Deck the Halls,” a one-of-a-kind theatrical and musical performance done within the walls of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site on Dec. 8 to 11.

“This particular show goes through the history and the myths behind some of our favorite holiday carols,” said Lindsey Beckley, special events and marketing manager for the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. “You’ll get to sing along with some of the songs that you know and hopefully learn some history as well.”

Participants will roam from room to room among Victorian-era decorations and items belonging to Harrison, Indiana’s lone U.S. president, and his family.

Audience members can gather around pianos and organs to sing with performers, learn more about the history of classic carols and even meet Santa Claus. All of it comes together in an entirely unique holiday tradition.

“It is an opportunity to be in the home of the 23rd president of the United States, which is an incredible gem for central Indiana. It’s historic and culturally significant, with a lot of original items that belonged to the Harrison family,” said Ellis Hall, a Franklin resident and one of the show’s cast members. “And this is an opportunity to hear a different take on the holiday season.”

“Deck the Halls” is part of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site’s Candlelight Theatre program. Each year, the site stages performances within the wall of Harrison’s historic downtown Indianapolis mansion, with the program’s actors bringing a combination of mysteries, comedies and thrilling historically-inspired tales to life.

In the fall, the shows focus on a different ghostly tale. Spring productions follow a salon theatre format, using the mansion to share intimate one-act mysteries and comedies. An upcoming performance in February uses poetry, art and music to celebrate Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.

The holiday shows are some of the most fun, though.

“The home is decorated for the holidays, and it’s beautiful. Sometimes you’re in awe that there’s all of this history around you,” said Hazel Gillaspy, one of the cast members of “Deck the Halls.” “It’s a museum; it’s not just a place where you’re performing.”

Gillaspy, a Greenwood resident, has been a part of Candlelight Theatre for several years. The experience has been a unique one among the other theater performances she’s been part of — mostly due to the setting itself.

“The fall show and the holiday show are a chance to see a little bit of the house, though it’s not a tour. You go to different rooms and meet the characters, depending on what the theme is,” she said. “It’s an intimate experience, because you’re so close to the actors, and the actors are so close to the audience.”

“Deck the Halls” allows visitors to move in small groups through the house to discover secrets behind holiday songs. Shows last about one hour, with new performances starting every 30 minutes.

”We sing a lot of them, but we really never know if there’s special meaning behind them, who wrote them, what the origins of the songs are,” Gillaspy said. “You’ll meet the actors and find out more about what you’re singing about.”

Hall first became involved with the Harrison Presidential Site in 2002, when he gave tours as a docent. He retired as vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Franklin College in 2019, and still is an adjunct instructor at the school.

During his time as the presidential site, Candlelight Theatre creative director Donna Wing learned that he had some theater background, and asked if he’d like to be involved.

Most of his focus has been on the spring murder-mystery plays, though he has also performed in some of the other shows, including the holiday ones.

In preparing for “Deck the Halls,” performers start rehearsing early in the fall.

“It certainly gets you in the holiday spirit than you would otherwise,” Hall said.

Due to the unique nature of the show, people have 24 opportunities to see the performance. Not only do people get to sing and put themselves in a festive mood, but it also brings in people to the Harrison house that maybe have never been there before, Beckley said.

“I hope that people take away a fond family memory and maybe the start of a new family tradition. If we can get a little bit of history in there, that’s great,” she said.