Why you might want to come out to see the Shepherds Play

by David Barham

     It is quite ironic that I am the one writing this article, directing this year’s production of The Shepherds Play and urging all of the adults in the community to come to the Community Hall at 11:00 on Friday, December 16 to see the performance.
      Let me start at the beginning with a short, personal anecdote.
      Many years ago, when I was doing my Waldorf teacher training at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire, our teachers tried to get us to perform The Shepherds Play as part of our studies. My class was known as a rebellious class and we actually refused to take up the play because we felt our teacher’s could not fully explain how this Medieval drama was something more than a Christian tale for Christian families. Our pressing questions went unanswered. So instead, my fellow students and I pulled together a Revels style celebration with elements from pre-Christian winter solstices celebrations (including a spiral of greens with candles), the Jewish traditions of Chanukah, and aspects of Christmas as well. The celebration was meaningful and satisfying and I thought I imagined I would have little to do with the Shepherds Play as I moved into my Waldorf teaching.
      A few years later, I was involved in a study of the Christmas season and the Shepherds Play and what Rudolf Steiner had to say about both. Consciously opening myself up to the play and its relation to this special season made it possible for me to accept a role in my school’s production. The amazing thing was this: I actually loved doing the play and the calm and centered feeling it gave me at a very hectic time of the year.
      Since that time, I have acted in the play many many times, each time as one of the shepherds- Gallus, Huckle, Muckle or Crispin. It got to the point where the season just didn’t feel right without the simple, warm heartedness of the play. For me, it is a real antidote to the insanity of modern American Christmas and a portal to something richer and more meaningful.
      I was raised in a reform Jewish household. We celebrated the Jewish festivals more out of a cultural, rather than spiritual direction. I enjoyed them, but was looking for more depth and meaning my entire life.
      Yes, it is true that the images of The Shepherds Play are directly out of the New Testament. On the literal level, it is the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the baby Jesus, and the honoring of the Christ child by the humble shepherds of Good Will who learn of the miracle birth in their dreams through the Angel. At this level, it is a celebration of an important story, one that has deep significance for Christian families throughout the world. Personally, I love the notion that the main characters in this archetypal Christian story are all Jewish!
      And yet, The Shepherds Play, as performed in Waldorf schools all over the world is different from what Christian families can expect to see in their churches. It is a matter of intention.
      Our Shepherds Play is really a universal celebration of the essential qualities found in this story. Joseph’s care for his pregnant wife. Mary’s maternal warmth for her newborn infant. The selfless giving of the goofy shepherds. The possibility for redemption and a new beginning- even for the simplest of folk. The idea that every human family is the Holy Family and every new child is the Light of the World. As Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn says, “There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes. Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.”
      I have performed in the play for the past two years on the stage in our Community Hall and each year have wished that more of the adults in the community could have been there. My great hope is that the play can become part of the good part of your family’s holiday season. Part of the inner preparation to receive the Light that humanity has always recognized as needing to grow within at this darkening time of year. We hope that as many of you as possible can join us this year. The hope is that the images in the play, presented as lovingly and humbly as possible, will speak to each of us regardless of our religious and cultural background.
      As a Waldorf community, we are committed to working together to protect and preserve the endangered kingdom of childhood. That is what The Shepherds Play is really about.