Slayton: Holiday Ennui

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Journalist and commentator Tom Slayton has been feeling a bit
overwhelmed by the season. But recently, he found some inspiration at a
performance by Lost Nation Theater of a David Budbill play.

Many years ago, when I was a boy, Christmas was magical: colored lights
and shiny red globes amid sweet-smelling evergreen boughs. And the
possibility of gifts – if I was good (whatever that was)!

now, with family scattered and no kids in the house, the holiday can get
me down. The sappy pop versions of Christmas songs in every store, the
relentless advertising, the manufactured good will, and the feeling that
I’m a year older and not a bit wiser all feed a sort of Christmastime
malaise. What I really want is some snow so I can ski away from it all.

moments come that transform that empty feeling, and one came this month
for me at a Lost Nation Theater performance of David Budbill’s Yuletide
play, Two for Christmas. It’s a presentation of The Second Shepherd’s
Play, a Renaissance mystery play, followed by Budbill’s brilliant
retelling of the same play entitled A Pulp-Cutter’s Nativity.

"mystery plays" were written to teach Bible stories to the illiterate
English peasants of the time, and The Second Shepherd’s Play is probably
the liveliest, mixing social satire and ribald farce in with the usual
piety. This, of course, is right up Budbill’s alley, and in his
retelling of the play – set in contemporary backwoods Vermont – the
shepherds are recast as loggers, who complain bitterly about the cold
weather, their wives, and the unfairness of the rich who get richer
while they – the poor – continue to suffer.

But into this
miserable world (which sounds a lot like our contemporary world) comes
an angel who announces the birth of Jesus. And in both plays, that is a
moment of transcendence: the truly miraculous nature of the season –
which simply underscores the true wonder hidden within our everyday
lives – is revealed, and both plays end with song and a vision of the

"Why does the story never wear out?" asks Carl Sandburg in his poem "Star Silver":

"…the vagabond mother of Christ
and the vagabond men of wisdom.
All in a barn on a winter night.
And a baby there, in swaddling clothes on hay –
Why does the story never wear out?"

it’s just the old, old language itself: "For unto you is born this day
in the City of David… Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy… and
on earth, peace, goodwill…" and so on. Language and ideas that are knit
deep in our bones – and have a power to renew us.

The fact is
that we need that story with its deep meaning to help keep some kind of
light burning in our hearts even when the world seems to be getting
darker and darker, to ask us to love one another, and to remember and
take care of the poor and downtrodden – especially in this cold, dark
time of the year.

Even if you’re not a Christian, those are pretty powerful notions – perhaps even a path to real meaning in a cold season.

Note: Hear Neal Charnoff’s recent interview with David Budbill.

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