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Slayton: Holiday Ennui

(Host)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.

(Slayton) 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)!

But 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.

However,moments come that transform that empty feeling, and one came this monthfor me at a Lost Nation Theater performance of David Budbill's Yuletideplay, 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.

The 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 Nativity.

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?

Perhaps 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.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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