Story telling

The rituals of the Christmas story

A little drama during the holidays is fine, as long as it takes place on stage or screen rather than at the dinner table. Christmas would hardly be Christmas without the entertainment that accompanies it, from Nativity plays to the Nutcracker ballet and Charlie Brown specials. Our family watches “The Muppet Christmas Carol” every year. For others, the holiday season wouldn’t be complete without “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Frank Capra, who turned 75 this month.

But just as important as the heartfelt messages and visual fare is the enjoyment of watching the same stories played out every year. Humans have a deep need for rituals, especially shared ones that connect us spiritually and emotionally. Western theater itself can trace its origins to Stone Age religious ceremonies, with the earliest evidence of religious ritual dating back 70,000 years, predating all known rock face designs by millennia.

By the time the first civilizations emerged in the ancient Near East, ritual enactments of sacred myths had become an essential component of religious worship. A stele from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period, 2040-1782 BC. AD, erected by a court official named Ikhernofret, records its participation in a sacred drama performed annually at a festival dedicated to Osiris, god of death and rebirth.

Just as important as the heartfelt messages and visual fare is the enjoyment of watching the same stories played out every year.

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, revelry, and regeneration, provided a similar outlet for the ancient Greeks. The Great Dionysia festival in Athens included four days of non-stop dramatic performances, which were judged by a jury. Some of the winners of these competitions, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, are still performed today.

The Roman theater was modeled on the Greek drama, but the religious component quickly withered. The plays at the annual Ludi Romana festival, in honor of Jupiter, were mostly crude burlesque. Their vulgarity fueled the early Church’s antagonism toward the theater. Drama did not begin to return to Christian worship until the early ninth century, when clerics celebrating Easter Mass began to recite the Quem Quaeritis, or “Who Are You Looking For”, a dialogue between three Marys and the angel guarding the empty tomb of Christ.

Legend has it that in 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi staged the first Nativity show in Greccio, Italy, using live animals and a real manger stuffed with hay. From these small beginnings came the great medieval mysteries, miracles and morality plays, which were to coincide with important celebrations in the Christian calendar. Spanish missionaries brought mystery coins to the New World in the 16th century and used them to convert native people to Christianity. The popular Mexican nativity drama, Los Pastores, or “The Shepherds,” is a legacy of this effort.


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The Reformation helped break the Church’s hold on public entertainment. But the rituals have the gift of reinventing themselves or of being assimilated to new fashions. Although Queen Elizabeth I of England banned religious plays, she also filled the void left at Christmas time by commissioning William Shakespeare in 1601 to write Twelfth Night.

Filmmakers started making Christmas-themed movies almost as soon as the medium was invented. Santa Claus got his first star turn in 1898. By 1910, there had been three adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.” The first complete American production of The Nutcracker was performed by the San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1944. George Balanchine’s beloved version premiered ten years later and has delighted audiences ever since. Christmas tales have changed over the centuries, but the need to tell them has endured.

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