The Magic of Christmas Camel

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Ray Cornils 12 Highlights from his work in Maine

The Legend of Ray Cornils and The Magic of Christmas Camel

Each December, Christmas music fans flock to Magic of Christmas, the annual holiday offering presented by the Portland Symphony Orchestra. While expecting to hear a fantastic night of holiday music, concertgoers hope to see a certain one-humped, four-legged animal grace the stage…the Magic of Christmas camel.

The camel is legendary among the musicians in the PSO and fans of Magic of Christmas. For those who aren’t familiar with the Christmas camel at Merrill Auditorium, every Magic of Christmas season a camel – two people in a costume to be specific – appears on stage, just once, and no one knows when it will appear – not even the PSO!

The camel has been crashing the Christmas concert for over 20 years and some may wonder how this all began. During the performance of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” for Magic of Christmas, the members of the orchestra traditionally donned hats, scarves, and other wintery apparel. One season during the 1990s, the sections of the orchestra raised the ante by wearing various surprise costumes, to the delight of the audience (and the orchestra players).

During one performance, the percussion section came on stage dressed as the 3 Kings and wearing beautifully ornate costumes. This caught the eye of organist Ray Cornils who thought, “Why, they need a camel!” It happened that Mr. Cornils recently came into possession of a handmade camel costume that was used in his children’s choir’s annual Christmas pageant. The next night he brought his two-person costume and planned to play the role of a camel along with PSO harpist Jara Goodrich.

Halfway through the performance of Sleigh Ride, Cornils and Goodrich plodded on stage to an eruption of laughter from the audience and gasps of surprise from the PSO. The conductor at the time, Toshi Shimada, was so taken aback by the lumbering dromedary that materialized on stage Ray was asked that the camel NOT make a second appearance!

But the following year, the orchestra members asked Mr. Cornils to return as the camel. This time, the camel appeared on a different night and the crowd laughed and gasped once again. In the years that followed, a pattern was established wherein everyone knew the camel would show up at Magic of Christmas, but no one knew when. Each year, on one night and one night only, Mr. Cornils and Ms. Goodrich would appear as the Magic of Christmas camel.