Mount Aloysius prepares to go back to the Middle Ages for Madrigal Christmas Feaste

For 43 years, Mount Aloysius College in Cresson has specialized in something special each December: Time travel.

No souped-up DeLorean needed.

This Dec. 7 and 8, Mount Aloysius will host the 43rd annual Madrigal Christmas Feaste at the school’s Cosgrave Student Center. The event transports those attending back to the Middle Ages in England to enjoy a feast and celebration.

Guests will be greeted by costumed “knights” at the door and whisked into a large-scale medieval re-enactment. The evening will include a meal of prime rib and period-accurate dishes, a mystery play and individual performances throughout the night.

“We have about 98 people performing in this,” said performance director Michelle McGowan. “We have jesters, jugglers, musicians … the performance starts the second you walk in the door.”

She said they get many of the same attendees each year, but the cast is just as loyal.

“Our performers come from Johnstown, Indiana, Altoona, Hollidaysburg,” she said. “There’s a lot of alumni, but there’s a core group of people who are always involved in it. The ages of the performers are anywhere from 17 to 65.”

McGowan, a Hollidaysburg resident and Mount Aloysius alumnus, has been involved with the event for 37 years, beginning during her time as a student. For much of that time, she has played one of the lead characters: Lady Misrule.

She said the character has origins in the Renaissance period, when “the lord of the area would pick the poorest person in the area who would come and rule over the castle for the day.” The event would be accompanied by a feast and celebration.

It’s a part with which she has become closely identified.

“My character, Misrule – you’d think that was my name,” McGowan said. “I’ll be out in public and someone will yell, ‘Hey Misrule!'”

Music is a big part of the Madrigal Feaste, and for more than 20 years, that’s been the job of musical director Nancy Rosensteel Way, an assistant professor of music at Mount Aloysius.

“We have a chorus who will sing songs of the season [and] we have a brass quartet,” she said.

We get the audience involved – we’ve transformed ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ into ‘The 12 Days of Madrigal,’ and they just love that.”

Another big musical moment is “the wench toss.”

“It sounds kind of terrible, doesn’t it?” Rosensteel Way said with a laugh. “It’s a circle dance – the male partner takes the female partner and lifts her from one side to the other. That’s literally all it is. … We run out of room for that each year because everyone wants to give it a try.”

According to McGowan, the two nights of the Madrigal are usually a sellout, with nearly 500 people attending.

“As a matter of fact, if you don’t have tickets by the middle of November, it’s very hard to get in,” she said.

It’s simply part of the holidays to many people, said Rosensteel Way.

“It’s a great way to kick off the Christmas season,” she said. “It’s very light-hearted … everybody leaves with a smile on their face. It’s just a really good time.”

And the event isn’t only for locals.

“Last year, we had some people there from Japan,” McGowan said. “We’ve had people from Japan, Australia, England – pretty much all over the place.”

No special knowledge of the Middle Ages is required for guests to have a good time, she said. They don’t even have to dress in costume if they don’t want to. In fact, there’s really only one requirement for guests.

“The main thing to remember is the word ‘Huzzah!'” McGowan explained. “You don’t say ‘yay’ or anything, you thrust your hand in the air and yell ‘Huzzah!’ It’s a word that meant ‘good work.'”

Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.