Christmas Around the World: 60 years of culture and Christmas spirit

BYU International Folk Dance Club members perform Christmas Around The World in December 2017. (BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the December 2021 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.

BYU’s annual Christmas Around the World concert has been bringing folk dance and Christmas spirit to campus since the first show in 1960. This year’s concert on Dec. 3-4 in the Marriott Center focuses on hope, healing and humanity.

The artistic director of Christmas Around the World and the International Folk Dance Ensemble, Jeanette Geslison, said those three concepts were impressed upon her during the pandemic when she was first developing the script for this year’s concert.

“COVID has taught us how important human interaction is because we haven’t had it the same way,” Geslison said. “And of all the things with cultural dance, it’s all about bringing humanity together.”

The dances in the concert every year are folk dances, but they aren’t specifically Christmas dances. This year, Geslison said she really wanted the music, dances and storyline of hope, healing, humanity and the Scandinavian Advent, to weave in the Christmas spirit and welcome in the Christmas season.

The show will portray the advent with cultural dances leading up to Christmas, lighting each candle of the advent and ending with the finale: everyone dancing around the Christmas tree on Christmas eve, a dance based off of a Danish tradition.

“Live dance traditions are in an effort to be together, not an effort to be by yourself,” Geslison said. “Let’s buoy each other up and strike a tune and dance together.”

This year, more than 200 people will be involved in the performance between sets, costuming, stage technicians and performers. This also includes almost 150 dancers from the International Folk Dance Club. Guest performers include Ngoma Y’Africa, a group of 25 performers and drummers presenting cultures of Africa, and BYU performance group Living Legends, who will perform their Native American jingle dress dance and grass dance.

Christmas Around the World is normally a time where alumni gather, but for the 60th concert of Christmas Around the World, there will be a special alumni reception in the Hinckley Center between the Saturday performances. The reception will bring alumni and current performers together for presentations and recreational dancing. The program for the show will also include information on the history of the concert and the folk dance program at BYU.

BYU’s folk-dance program and the Christmas Around the World concert were both started by Mary Bee Jensen. She founded the folk dance program in 1956 and held Christmas concerts in the Smith Fieldhouse. In 1960, the first concert titled Christmas Around the World occurred because of her hard work and dedication, Geslison said.

Geslison said Jensen had an incredibly large personality and loved folk dance with all her heart, might and mind. She started the shows by bringing in live trees and setting up the stage in the Smith Fieldhouse because the Marriott Center was not built yet. She organized everything herself and built an audience out of nothing. Without her, folk dance and Christmas Around the World would not be what it is today, Geslison said.

Working on Christmas Around the World, students undergo an educational experience where they learn to be more empathetic and understanding of others, Geslison said.

Geslison has been involved in Christmas Around the World since she was a student in 1987. Over the years, her involvement has changed in capacities from student, to adjunct faculty, to full-time faculty to artistic director in 2011.

For her, Christmas Around the World is a family tradition. She directs, her husband directs the Folk Music Ensemble that provides music for the show, and two of her children are in the concert this year. Last year, when the concert was canceled because of COVID-19, she said it was strange not having it in their Christmas season.

Tasha Keckley, president of the International Folk Dance Club, was also disappointed the concert was canceled last year.

“It is a staple. I was so devastated when COVID hit,” she said. “There was something missing from Christmas.”

Christmas Around the World is a family affair for Keckley as well. She said the event “beautifully ushers in the Christmas spirit” and with this year’s focus on hope and healing, the concert includes motifs that help to reflect on the Savior.

This will be Keckley’s fourth year of Christmas Around the World and it is one of the concerts she looks forward to most.

“I have no words, it truly is indescribably amazing,” she said. The dances in the show are colorful and vibrant and are like a “visual feast” for the audience, Keckley said.

Keckley said as she has the opportunity to dance more and continually learn about other cultures, she sees more similarities rather than differences.

“We are all connected as brothers and sisters and the love Christ has for us, no matter what country you live in, that feeling permeates (the show),” she said. “That feeling of connection and love and peace and all those beautiful things get felt from the stage to the audience.”

The International Folk Dance Club is made up of five teams, or ensembles, who usually perform separately. But all five teams, including International Folk Dance Ensemble which is the touring and most advanced team, perform in the Christmas Around the World concert. The week before the show is filled with dress rehearsals and is “not just a bonding time within the team you are on, but across the five teams and you bond as a club,” Keckley said.

“I’m so impressed with the sense of community the concert creates,” Geslison said. “I am always in such awe of what the students accomplish.”

Being in such a large production with so many people helps students realize they are part of something bigger, a greater entity that needs every person’s efforts to make it succeed, she said. Students learn that their contributions matter in making the overall experience better and Geslison compared that with how in the gospel Christ teaches that every person is deserving of effort and love.

“I think students really feel that, to feel lifted and inspired by coming together as a great whole to make this happen,” she said. “That’s the real magic of our concert, to see the students brighten up because they feel buoyed by working together.”

Because of continual COVID-19 restrictions, masks are required for audience members and for dancers backstage. When the performers are onstage they are exempt from wearing masks.

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