Christmas is ridiculous. That’s probably one reason it took the spot of ancient midwinter festivals like Saturnalia, when everything went topsy-turvy. Consider this excerpt from Auden’s For the Time Being, when Simeon at last sees Jesus:

Because in Him the Flesh is united to the Word without magical transformation, Imagination is redeemed from promiscuous fornication with her own images. The tragic conflict of Virtue with Necessity is no longer confined to the Exceptional Hero; for disaster is not the impact of a curse upon a few great families, but issues continually from the hubris of every tainted will. Every invalid is Roland defending the narrow pass against hopeless odds, every stenographer Brünnhilde refusing to renounce her lover’s ring which came into existence through the renunciation of love.

Nor is the Ridiculous a species any longer of the Ugly; for since of themselves all men are without merit, all are ironically assisted to their comic bewilderment by the Grace of God. Every Cabinet Minister is the woodcutter’s simple-minded son to whom the fishes and the crows are always whispering the whereabouts of the Dancing Water or the Singing Branch, every heiress the washerwoman’s butterfingered daughter on whose pillow the fairy keeps laying the herb that could cure the Prince’s mysterious illness.

Nor is there any situation which is essentially more or less interesting than another. Every tea-table is a battlefield littered with old catastrophes and haunted by the vague ghosts of vast issues, every martyrdom an occasion for flip cracks and sententious oratory.

Because in Him all passions find a logical In-Order-That, by Him, is the perpetual recurrence of Art assured.

Safe in his silence, our songs are at play.

Auden’s meditation here resonates with his comments on humor elsewhere. The impossible miracle of the Nativity inverts our values and opens up our imaginations, out of preoccupation with self-importance toward a glimpse of how God sees us. Not a sparrow, not a lily, not a hair on your head is beyond his care. Even the plain, even the lowly, even the undesirable—all are invaluable. He proves it by becoming all of those things himself.

Some of the figures who best illustrate this plainness are St. Luke’s shepherds, those smelly hicks who helped supply the Temple’s endless stream of sacrifices. In a medieval retelling of the shepherds’ story, a few English townspeople especially drive home the herdsmen’s laughable unfitness to see Jesus, demonstrating Auden’s point some five centuries before he wrote.

I’m thinking of The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play, a text I was forced to read but have come to appreciate greatly. It gained this cumbersome name because it’s one of two nativity plays from a town in Yorkshire, England. It’s one of the “mystery” plays that a few cities put on in the middle ages with the funding of their various guilds (“mystery” comes from ministerium, Latin for “guild”).

These plays were like Christmas pageants, but they covered everything from creation to the Last Judgment, usually taking great creative license. The Shepherds’ Play concludes with the angel, Mary, and Jesus, but most of the action is the extra-biblical antics of these Palestinian peasants. And like Auden’s oratorio, the play thrives on anachronisms. “Christ’s cross me speed / And Saint Nicholas!” one shepherd swears, long before even hearing of the Nativity. Other discontinuities of greater importance are the shepherds’ lengthy, individual complaints about their working conditions and families. Which is also like Auden. In the scene just before Simeon’s, Auden has his shepherd’s say,

When, feeling the great boots of the rich on our faces,
We live in the hope of one day changing places,
   Be then the truth of our abuse
   That we abuse.

This first complaint against superiors is exactly where the Wakefield shepherds begin:

No wonder, as it stands
If we be poor,
For the tilth of our lands
Lies fallow as the floor,
   As ye ken.
We are so hammed,
Fortaxed, and rammed,
We are made hand-tamed
   With these gentlery-men.

(That is, this shepherd complains that the gentry landowners were dictating the use of land and oppressing them with taxes and the law.)

His fellow shepherds then follow suit, bemoaning the icy weather, their lack of sleep, their unpleasant wives, their ever-increasing progenies and consequent food shortages. Adding to their problems is the pretentious Mak. He’s got the same troubles as the shepherds, but he’s also known for stealing sheep, which is the main action of the play. In an absurd sequence, he swipes a sheep while the shepherds sleep, and he and his wife Gill pretend it’s their newborn son. When the shepherds track down the couple, they try to keep up the ruse. To cover the ram’s bleating, Mak sings a lullaby and Gill groans as if in labor. She even promises to “eat this child / That lies in this cradill.” Which is, of course, what they intend to do, since the “child” is their lamb dinner. Despite their anger, the shepherds decide to let the culprits go, and they return to their weary way.

What happens next is still more absurd. Back in the fields, the shepherds hear the song of the angel, who declares the Good News:

At Bedlem go see:
There lies that free,
In a crib full poorly,
   Betwixt two bestys.

Funny enough, in the history of English, a “crib” is first a trough or a shed. Only secondarily, and because of Luke’s Gospel, is it also a child’s bed. Right after a thief pretends a ram is an infant, an angel declares a very particular boy lies where livestock and their fodder go.

The shepherds’ response to this disturbing news is more buffoonery, as they try to mimic the angel’s Gloria. But we can’t count this ridiculous reaction as inappropriate. How could anyone know the proper response to something so new, so different, so upside-down? And despite their joking, the shepherds really get it. When they reach the stable, one says to Christ,

Thou has waried, I ween,
The warlock so wild.
The false guiler of teen,
Now goes he beguiled.
   Lo, he merries!
Lo, he laughs, my sweeting!
A well fair meeting!

The infant has cursed the Curser, deceived the Deceiver, and laughs at his own comic inversion of the Devil’s power. Just like the Psalm,

The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth.

The LORD shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming.

And strangest of all, the gnashing of the teeth of God’s enemies turns out to be the chewing of bread, when the Lamb of God laid in that food trough gives his flesh for the life of the world.

Which is just about the most ridiculous thing you could say, at Christmas or any time. But there it is.