The earliest (and, from what we can tell, most popular) piece of modern theater we have on record (following the "blackout" of the Dark Ages) involves scripture and comedy. And Christmas.
The Second Shepherd's Play -- named not after a second shepherd but rather a second play about the shepherds of Luke's nativity story -- was first produced around 1380 somewhere in England. It was created and performed by a group of townspeople, probably a guild of some sort (maybe weavers because of their connection with wool) and on a portable "pageant wagon." Pageant wagon festivals filled with home-grown plays based on scripture and on performed on portable stages were a popular phenomenon amongst medieval British common folk until quashed by Henry VIII who found them (like everything having to do with religion before his reign) too Catholic.
The Second Shepherd's Play is a charming reenactment of Luke 2…at least that's the second half of the show.
The first half is something else altogether.
The Second Shepherd's Play begins with three scruffy shepherds coming on stage, one by one, complaining bitterly about the weather, their lack of food, the cruelty of their manor lords and, worst of all, their loudly braying wives.
A fourth shepherd comes in - a well-known thief wearing a blanket over his head and feigning a southern accent so he hopefully won't be recognized. It doesn't take long, however, before everyone realizes who it really is. He then goes on about how he's hungry and sick and his wife not only drives him nuts but can't stop plopping out babies. The shepherds fall asleep and start snoring. The thief promptly gets up and steals one of their sheep, taking it home to his wife who is sure he will be hung for his theft.
They cook up a scheme: when the other three shepherds come looking for their sheep, the thief will claim his wife just had another baby, is unwell, and needs to lay ever-so-still next to her "newborn" (the sheep wrapped in swaddling cloths). Hilarity ensues as the ruse is uncovered and, rather than hanging the trickster, the shepherds make him ridiculous, wrapping him in a blanket and taking him back to their flock.
An angel then summons them to the manger, and you probably pretty much know the rest of the story.
A sparkling production of The Second Shepherd's Play, filmed in 1954 for television's "Omnibus" (hosted by Alistair McClean), can be seen here, in part:
There are a few things that The Second Shepherd's Play teaches us (besides how not to steal sheep):
1) Our forebears were not afraid of injecting humor (raucous humor!) into scripture interpretation. This is arguably one of the reasons this aged play is still around, and regularly performed.
2) Luke 2, while not necessarily "funny" per se, is conducive to comic treatment because the story is filled with many of comedy's classic characteristics: the characters are "low" (Mary, Joseph, the shepherds et al are poor and powerless); they find themselves in serious predicament (Mary must deliver her babe in a cattle stall because there is no room in the inn); and, despite everything, there's a happy ending: the babe is born! (And, afterwards, there's presumably a wedding….) It only takes a little bit of twisting and/or over-the-top heightening of the characters, their situation, the "before" and/or "after" and the funny stuff seems to fit in just right. The fact that the characters of the The Second Shepherd's Play are so goofily bumbling, cowardly, selfish et al, committing more sins in 10 minutes than some of us do in a year, especially as they choose to "forgive" the thief by making a fool of him rather than hanging him, actually heightens and deepens the story's serious message: that the Messiah, "God-With-Us," has come not only come into our crazy, hurting world to save us, but maybe also, despite everything, to savor us. Maybe that's the reason so many of our beloved "secular" Christmas stories contain so much comedy as well….
3) Finally, or this is one more thought for now: The Second Shepherd's Play, and all the comedy of Christmas -- in literature, film, tv, and in our own lives - suggest that one of the best routes to finding the joy that this day purports to be all about is through laughter. Of course there are other routes to Christmas joy, but a sure-fire path is the comedy that is always making itself apparent as we celebrate Jesus' birth. I believe there is funny stuff ALWAYS at Christmas and wherever we may go - at church, out and about, with our families, in our most unhappy, unbecoming holiday moments - something is popping up to us laugh, and, rather than blowing it off because there is much more important, pressing, or sought-after business to attend to, maybe it's the goofy surprise that is God's invitation to enter the cave and see what God has done. Is doing….
And maybe that's why the traditional Christmas victual is…goose. ??
Mmmeeerrrryyyy Christmas everybody! From Jesus, Santa and Me. xo