The Advent of a World Premiere: See Amid the Winter Snow

“See amid the winter’s snow, born for us on earth below

See the tender lamb appear, promised from eternal years

Hail! Thou, ever blessed morn. Hail! Redemption’s happy dawn

Sing through all Jerusalem - Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

-John Goss, “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow”. 1871.

Well, folks. Here we are. This is the week of my very first world premiere as playwright and producer. Thursday evening on the second floor stage of the Adrienne Theatre in Center City Philadelphia will be the very first time a group unaffiliated with a school performs a play that I’ve written. I have chills already.

My feelings right now, captured in these Christmastime suburban mom stock photo faces

In a lot of ways, this week makes me feel oddly like a stereotypical suburban mom during Christmastime. I’m running around the city buying things my “family” needs, I spent about 8 hours on Sunday baking cookies and cupcakes, we’re decorating a room to transform it into the North Pole but only so much so that we can just reset it immediately following the performances —there’s a tree, there’s ornaments, there’s lights, there’s family coming in from out of town, there’s big credit card bills. It’s a lot. As much as I want to lie down with a couple glasses of Chardonnay and watch The Great British Bake-Off right now (a terrible idea right now, by the way, since we have rehearsal starting at 9 and I have to pay attention and take notes for the actors) — I might do what is often told to these stressed-out all-star suburban Christmas moms and take a moment to reflect on the reason for the season. And by the way, that’s not cutesy Christianese for “OK, let’s stop having fun and talk about Jesus now” — far from it. I wanted to talk about what See Amid the Winter Snow means to me and why I wrote it.

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SPOILER WARNING: I’m likely going to share spoilers for See Amid, so if spoilers are a thing you care about, please come back and read this after you come to Philly this weekend and see this wonderful production!

It was December of 2015. I was a new member (a “New Man”) of the Wheaton College Men’s Glee Club and it was a magical time in my life. Our conductor, Dr. Hopper, set a new piece of music in front of us for the upcoming Wheaton College Christmas Festival and it became my new favorite Christmas song — “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow”. I fell in love with the piece right away. The title was enough to put me squarely in the mood for Christmastime and winter wonderland — it didn’t matter the song had absolutely nothing to do with the Santa side of Christmas. “See Amid” covers the story of the birth of Jesus from a couple different angles and the way our choral arrangement of the song was drawn, each of the choirs (Women’s Chorale, Men’s Glee Club, and the mixed-gender Concert Choir) took a different verse and it was just delightful. It’s the sort of music piece that stays with you. The verse in particular that stuck with me was the one given to Women’s Chorale:

“Sacred infant, all divine - what a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss — down to such a world as this?

Hail! Thou, ever blessed morn. Hail! Redemption’s happy dawn

Sing through all Jerusalem - Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

-John Goss, “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow”. 1871.

What jumped out at me in particular about the words in this song was that the timeliness with which the event (the birth of Christ) happened was stressed. In the middle of everything that was going on in “such a world as this”, an act of great love came through in spite of it all (I.e. Romans were ordering the death of every Hebrew boy. Who should Jesus be but a Hebrew boy?). I thought there was something so beautiful and true reflected in these lyrics about how none of us exist outside of our circumstances. There’s a context in which everything happens and choosing to love beyond those circumstances — even sometimes flying directly in the face those circumstances — is something truly precious.

The Wheaton College Men’s Glee Club performing “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow” in December 2015. Pre-cowlick Peter Fenton is somewhat obstructed by Adam Reiskytl here but you can definitely see me at the center of the image

This lesson stuck with me, even as I left the evangelical context I heard it in. For me, the lesson became synonymous to the song title: To “See Amid the Winter Snow” is to choose love beyond circumstance. The theme is brought up a couple times in the script — Mayor Claus drops the title word-for-word during her speech at the Christmas Eve Ball; at the top of the second act.

Deb Glassman plays Maureen Gaines Claus in the World Premiere of See Amid the Winter Snow

“Thank you, Mitchell. Thank you all for being here tonight. Thank you all for being here tonight. It brings me joy to see all of your faces tonight. You may have questions unanswered. You may have bitter feelings toward my husband or toward me. And those are justified — but it means the world that we have come together for one night as the North Pole. It is truly wonderful to see you choose to see amid the winter snow and be there for each other — and the greater good we believe in.”

-Maureen Gaines Claus, Act 2, Scene 1

In the context of the show, Maureen is addressing a North Pole who had recently at-large forgiven the Claus family for the outsourcing scandal — but of course, I wrote that intentionally because it mirrors the lesson Mitchell has to learn from the story unfolding around him. He can’t see amid the winter snow. He’s gotten so lost in the news and politics and what-have-you that he’s started to neglect the relationship that matters the most in his life, the one with his girlfriend, Daisy. My favorite non-joke in the script comes a couple scenes later when IdaLynn is doing emotional labor trying to help Mitchell make sense of the lovers’ quarrel (which features my single favorite joke in the script) between him and Daisy in the prior scene:

Abdul Sesay plays Mitchell Claus in the World Premiere of See Amid the Winter Snow

MITCHELL: How do we know for sure?

IDALYNN: We don’t.

MITCHELL: What should we do?

IDALYNN: Quit chopping wood and run after her!

MITCHELL: Good call.

IDALYNN: And Mitch — bring the axe.

-Mitchell Claus and IdaLynn Marble, Act 2, Scene 3

Mitchell, with the help of his friend, makes a conscious decision here to not overthink and just choose to run after the person he loves to be with them. By the end of the play, he has seen amid the winter snow. That’s the substantive connective tissue I can see between the play I wrote and the song I sang in Men’s Glee Club four Christmases ago. See Amid is often what the title is short handed to and that’s the intended moral message of the play: take a beat and look beyond your circumstances to be there for the people you love.

I’m so excited for this weekend. It truly does feel similar to a Christmas, waiting for the premiere to finally get here and having a stupid, boyish little feeling of joy waiting for Jesus and/or Santa Claus to come. Come see our show Thursday, Friday, and Saturday September 19-21! The director, stage manager, designers, and cast have done such a wonderful job with my words. I’m really happy these people are the midwives in charge of bringing this play into the world.

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