CAMBRIDGE -- For the little midwinter village on the ''Christmas Revels" stage, the longest, darkest night was a little darker than it's ever been. Revels founder and guiding light John Langstaff died last week at 84. Despite that -- or, more likely, because of it -- this is the most exuberant, frisky, and, well, merry ''Christmas Revels" in years.
To honor the 35th anniversary of the annual fete, Revels revived its original medieval English setting. On Saturday, nearly every song and dance shimmered either with the cheer of Christmas or the chill of midwinter. There was a feast of familiar carols, including ''In Dulci Jubilo," ''Personent Hodie," ''Somerset Wassail," and ''The Boar's Head Carol." All were sung with beauty, muscle, and charm by the largely amateur cast.
In Langstaff's original vision, the use of amateurs was not a matter of economics. His intent was to portray the inhabitants of some ancient village celebrating Christmas together, not being entertained by a polished theatrical troupe. The cast enhanced the real-life spell Saturday, both with its lovely, naturalistic singing and with a homey charisma that helped the audience believe these really were their neighbors onstage, welcoming them into the fun.
The dancing was delivered with stately grace and winking grins. The Morris Dancers were lithe and crisp, even when hammering wooden sticks together with such playful gusto that splinters went flying toward the audience, which shrieked along in mock-astonishment.
The women's chorus sang ''There Is No Rose of Such Virtue" in a gorgeous choral whisper. ''Quomodo Cantabimus" was sweet yet wild, like raw honey.
Donning little animal caps, the children's chorus brought the pretty carol ''The Friendly Beasts" to giggly life and delightfully enacted the satiric 14th-century tale of the ne'er-do-well donkey Fauvel. As the donkey, Virginia Jay exuded the sublime stubbornness that only a 10-year-old could muster with quite such credibility. She displayed some real acting chops, too, her caricature just broad enough to enliven the tale, but never disrupt it.
Narrator Debra Wise supplied continuity with jovial swagger and welcome articulation, making even the most archaic passages easy to follow. Michael Collver was a haunting wonder, his countertenor like an earthier Alfred Deller.
David Coffin, who succeeded Langstaff as onstage master of the Revels in 1990, is a fine baritone who gets better every year. His voice has an uncanny ability to be simultaneously bold as bells and rippling with human emotion: the perfect instrument for rousing an audience to sing. Dressed and acting like a very fit Falstaff, he cajoled the crowd into song with his sly definition of harmony (''the part the person next to you is not singing").
Coffin sang the ritual act-one finale of ''Lord of the Dance" as an unmistakable homage to Langstaff, adding a particularly fierce determination to the line ''But I am the dance and I still go on." Indeed, everything about the cast's relish and vitality seemed bent on proving that Langstaff has left behind a living, breathing, heartbeating tradition all its own. He would have wanted no other legacy.