One of the most beloved traditions at our school is the performance of the Paradise Play and the Shepherds Play before the winter holiday break. These unique plays are part of a trilogy of three ethnic German plays that originated in the middle ages. Since the plays were collected and passed to Rudolf Steiner and others, they have become part of the rhythmic schedule of festivals and celebrations, often being performed almost simultaneously at many Waldorf schools across the world.
This Thursday, December 19, in the Great Hall, The Shepherds Play will perform at 4:30pm and 7pm. The Paradise Play performance is at 6pm.
The Three Christmas Plays
In the sixteenth or seventeenth century, these unique plays were brought to the island of Oberufer on the Danube close to Austria and Hungary by Germans who migrated there. The plays incorporate a collection of ancient customs, beliefs and traditions passed down through the families of Oberufer that had not been written or recorded anywhere else. In 1840, one of Rudolf Steiner’s teachers, Karl Julius Schröer, collected the plays from families on the island and wrote them down so they could continue to be enjoyed and celebrated. Each family had their part and the parts were pieced together to create the plays as we know them today.
For the German peasant families, the tradition on the island of Oberufer was to begin at harvest time. Before the performance, the actors would move in a procession through the village streets; an “angel” would stand outside the inn where the play was to be performed, and a “devil” would go around town and announce the play by blowing on a cow horn.
The Paradise Play, acting as a preface, presents the allegorical account of expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, but with the promise of future salvation. In it we are able to recognize the identity crisis of ‘original sin’ as it relates to the male and female aspects of our human experience. One sees enticement and allurement and the other experiences cataclysmic tragedy, a dichotomy common to all human struggles. This fall from paradise is also a parable of our human experience; of becoming aware of ourselves and of becoming ‘like gods and goddesses’ in our growing responsibility as we become conscious of ourselves and our place here on the earth. This play is recommended for children in grades three and up since the third grade curriculum contains the story of Adam and Eve (along with other Creation stories from many cultures) as well as its adult themed content.
The Shepherds Play portrays the birth of Jesus in a stable, where the child is sought out by a group of shepherds. From William Ward, a longtime Waldorf teacher (emphasis added):
“It is the story of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the birth of the child attended by an angel…The play is about Christmas, but more broadly it is about the renewal of light in the depth of winter, the light of the world, and the spiritual light within. In the context of the universal spirit of humanity, the play presents the cosmic truth that the newborn child, each newborn child, is a Holy Child and comes into the world trailing clouds of glory. In each human birth occurs the rebirth of spirit in the world, and each calls for reverence and love. For grade school children, this play gives them an experience of the renewal of the light, of the miracle of the spirit coming into the world, and also of their identity with that spirit. The play also offers an atmosphere comprised of reverence, humility, peace, and love, as well as of the boisterous good spirits of the shepherds, an atmosphere that for a brief moment shines as a candle in the hectic, commercial miasma of the holiday season……”
The Kings Play depicts the visit of three wise kings to the birthplace of the Holy Child, as well as the murderous attempts by Herod to thwart Jesus’ mission. It is not presented to the school age children but is usually read off the script by a group of adults who gather to share this play, this stage of the mystery.
Again, from William Ward: “These plays need not be seen as an expression of a narrow, exclusive sectarianism…There is a “living in the spirit,” evident in the newborn child-an openness to creation, a joy in the light, a love of life and of the world. This ideal state of being is affirmed in each of the world’s religions as the highest goal of human striving. It is expressed in various ways: as liberating submission to the will of Allah in Islam, attainment of the pure Buddha mind, the ecstatic love of the Sufi, atonement and songs of praise to Yaweh, as Christ consciousness, and so on. In each religion is an inspired expression of the human spirit seeking the divine.”
These poetic plays fit into the rhythm of our annual festivals with a ritual stability and warmth that is fostered when certain traditions are enjoyed year after year in our community. They
are gifts from the faculty, staff, and other adult members of the community; the children especially benefit from the gift of a performance by their beloved teachers and adults. They nourish our sense of spirit and humor and they gather us on a cold winter night to offer a few moments of respite and reflection in the midst of the craziness of today’s world. We hope to see you there!