The Gifts of The Magi — A holiday play
Happy holidays, and welcome to this presentation of The Gifts of the Magi, WHYY’s annual holiday radio play. Written by Chris Satullo, it is narrated by Naomi Starobin and performed by WHYY’s Not Ready for Deadline Players. A serial, narrative version of this story was written by Satullo for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002. The illustrations by Tony Auth, who died in September, were drawn for that 2002 version.
ACT 1: THE GIFT OF GOLDSCENE 1The time is current day, set in a Philadelphia suburb.
NARRATOR: Entries in the Rev. Peter Travers’ Day Book for Monday, Dec. 22
8:30 a.m. – Clergy meeting at St. Paul’s11 a.m. – “Seasoned Citizens” brunch1 p.m. – Meet with choir director1:30 p.m. – Write Christmas Sermon4 p.m. – Gifts to shelter7:30 p.m. – Finance Committee
NARRATOR: Peter Travers was a Christian, a man of the cloth, no less. But God had not yet granted him the gift of infinite patience.And at this moment, Tom Stith was testing Peter’s very human limits.Except for Stith’s droning, this ill-timed, Christmas week meeting of the Episcopal Diocese’s Wissahickon Deanery would have ended 10 minutes ago.
STITH: I’m sorry, but if the chair will indulge me just a little bit, I have to insist that we linger on this point of the method of calculation of the diocesan assessment to parishes who have experienced setbacks in their free cash flow, leading to various complications of a fiscal nature and leaving them less well equipped perhaps that formerly to live up to what otherwise might be a happy obligation to the greater diocesan community…(Stith keeps droning in background beneath this conversation)
SHERRY (whispered): – Good Lord, apparently Tom’s the only one in the deanery who’s got his gifts bought and his Christmas sermon written. Seems he has a lot of time to waste.
NARRATOR: Sherry Magruder was Peter’s former assistant and still good friend, now rector at St. Thomas up in Whitemarsh. Peter ran his hands through his swept back mane of slightly graying blond hair.
PETER: Eh. Tom was a tedious windbag back in seminary, and the wine doesn’t improve with age. How’s your sermon coming?
SHERRY: Oh, you know me. Five drafts and counting. I’ll be fiddling with it up to 9:59 p.m. on the Eve. And you? I suppose the manuscript has already been illuminated by humble monks, and shipped to the Library of Congress for posterity? Or maybe Canterbury?
PETER: Nope, not a word yet. Not … a … word.
SHERRY: You? The diocesan Dante, the Cotton Mather of Montgomery County? Don’t tell me YOU have writer’s block.
PETER: The Spirit blows when and where it wants, Sherry. And He… sorry, She is taking her own sweet time about it this Christmas.
SHERRY: Well, at some point this week I’ll pray for you, Peter Travers, but for right now let me just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of you sweating out a sermon.
PETER: Pray whatever, Sher, but first please ask the Almighty to make this meeting end. I have GOT to get to my Seasoned Citizens holiday brunch.
Fellowship Hall, Trinity Episcopal Church(Burble and clattering of silverware, cups)
NARRATOR: The scrambled eggs were hardening on the plates, the coffee cooling in the cups. The annual Holiday Brunch of Trinity Episcopal Church’s seniors group, the Seasoned Citizens, was approaching its merciful close.Peter Travers hugged shoulders, pecked wrinkled cheeks, all the time edging to the door of the parish hall. Escape beckoned. After a quick meeting with the choir director to go over the playlist for Christmas services, he could settle into his study, confront his Macbook and wrangle some inspiration from his curdled brain.
PAUL GRIMES: Peter, a word?
PETER: Oh, hello, Paul. Merry Christmas.
NARRATOR: Paul Grimes clutched a wrinkled piece of notebook paper, scrawled to the edges, single-spaced. He was a lifelong member of Trinity. Now that he was retired from GE, Grimes had way too much time on his hands, time he liked to spend critiquing Peter’s taste in theology and liturgy. (Rustling of paper)
PAUL GRIMES: What? Oh, yes, yes, yes. You, too. Peter, a word. I’ve taken some notes, put some thoughts down as it were, pulled together a report that I thought we should discuss today.
PETER: A report? On what?
PAUL GRIMES: On some of the slippages of practice, some theological lapses I’ve noted through the course of the year at the 8 o’clock service. If I might …
PETER: Paul, that is really so helpful of you to do that, so … typically pro-active. I really would love to go over it with you. Why not let me look it over, and after the holidays we can make a time for you to come in and we’ll sit down…
NARRATOR: Peter reached to take the sheet from Grimes, but the old man clutched it tight with both hands. Peter released his grip, lest the paper tear in half, provoking an even worse incident.
PAUL: No, Peter, I think it vital, indeed paramount that we discuss some of these curious doctrinal lapses right now. The Christmas season is upon us, and it is a time, as you know, when many of our less … dedicated members do come to services, and I feel that if they detect, they witness some of the laxness, some of the fuzziness of doctrine that I’ve seen from the pulpit of this church this year, well, I’m not sure they will come back. For example… (More rustling of paper, throat clearing)
PAUL: Why, on the eighth of October of this year, at the 8 o’clock service, the text was from Matthew and in your sermon you seemed to suggest that Jesus’ description of hell was only metaphorical and…
NARRATOR: Peter tried to let a look of pastoral bonhomie wash over his face, disguising the wit’s end irritation he really felt…
PETER: Paul, look, I really look forward to going over all of this with you. Really, I do. But now is not a good time. It is, as you so accurately note, Christmas week, and that is really a very busy time for those of us in the clergy racket. So I must insist we do this after New Year’s. Please get in touch with Suzie to set it up.
PAUL: Fine. Very well then. Could you at least email me a copy of your Christmas sermon so that I can review it and give feedback?
PETER: If I get it done in time for that, Paul, yes, I think we’ll see if we can make that happen.
PAUL: Very well. My email is engineer1 (that’s the numeral 1, not the word) at Comcast dot net. Would you like me to write that down for you?
PETER: No, thanks. I’ve got it.
NARRATOR: Grimes folded the notebook sheet over twice, tucked into his pocket, pulled his coat off the rack by the door, put it on with an angry shrug of his shoulders and marched out into the December air.
PETER: Aaaarrghh. Ah, sweet Lord, my cup runneth over. SCENE 3
The nave of Trinity Episcopal Church.
ERIC: So that would be the prelude music, Peter. We haven’t used this piece often, but I think it sets the mood well, don’t you?
PETER: Yes, it’s fine, Eric, just fine. Good job as usual.
ERIC: Thanks. You OK, boss? You look like the weight of the world has settled on your brow.
PETER: What? Oh, no. Just a little distracted. That’s all. Busy time. Christmas for the clergy is like April for the CPA, right?
ERIC: Right, boss. Well, if we’re done, I got to get over to Cathedral Village to play piano for the carol sing. Can’t get enough of Ella Mae’s off-key crooning.
PETER: Right, right. See you tomorrow.
NARRATOR: As Peter walked down the center aisle of the nave, the big wooden doors at the back swung open. In the middle stood the silhouette of a large man, backlit by winter sun:
TOM FRELINGHUYSEN: Hey, P.T., Got a sec?
PETER: Oh, wow, Tom. For a minute with the glare I couldn’t tell it was you. Fact, you kinda looked like, you know, that scene from Lord of the Rings when Aragorn sweeps into that castle after they thought he was dead.
TOM (chuckling): I’ll get back to saving Middle Earth in a minute, but first can I go over something with you?
PETER: Sure. Shoot.
NARRATOR: Tom Frelinghuysen settled into a back pew. Peter stood next to him. Light from the wall sconces glinted off Tom’s bald head. Tom was the rector’s warden, the lay leader of the congregation, and Peter’s dear friend.
TOM: How’s the big sermon coming?
PETER: Right now I’m savoring a classic case of writer’s block.
TOM: You? The Lord’s favorite wordsmith?
PETER: Please! So, Tom, what’s up? Your face tells me you bring grim tidings.
NARRATOR: Tom stroked the beard that offset his hairline’s stark retreat.
TOM: ‘Fraid so. I went over the stewardship numbers again last night. It’s worse than we feared, P.T.
PETER: How bad?
TOM: Pretty bad. We had six families get hit in the Merck layoffs. Six. And they all revised pledges downward, one all the way down to zero. And Mike Wister just got word he’s been transferred. That’s five grand moving to Oklahoma. Plus, that little dip Wall Street took hit our portfolio right in time to hurt our end of year balance. As you know, in this congregation, we’ve got a lot more of the 99 percent than the one percent. Now even some of the one percent are wonderin’ what just hit ‘em. For icing, the sexton doesn’t like the way the boiler’s sounding. He feels a big repair bill coming on.
PETER: Thank you, Bildad, for the words of comfort. Bottom line?
TOM: We come up, oh, 12 grand short on revenue vs. next year’s draft budget. That’s assuming we make it out of the year without red ink. And that’s looking shaky. Plus the boiler bill, whatever that ends up bein’.
PETER: And I may have put us $200 more in the red this morning. Suzie called in a tizzy over the pageant. You know how she talked me into live sheep this year? Well, the farmer she set it up with had a barn fire, can’t make it, but he lined up another guy. Except this guy wants $200 more. Suzie was in despair. She throws her heart and soul into this pageant, not to mention 30 years of regret at never having run off to Broadway. So I just had to say yes.
TOM: Some real steely-eyed leadership, there, Reverend.
PETER: ’Tis the season, Tom.
TOM: OK, so our shortfall is $12,000 plus $200.
PETER: Does this mean I have to stop by the finance committee meeting tonight? Or can I rely on some of that lay leadership I hear so much about?
TOM: Be there, P.T. It’s time for unpleasant choices. And if there’s two things we Episcopalians hate, it’s unpleasantness and hard choices.
PETER: I knew I should have stayed on Wall Street.
NARRATOR: Tom cocked his head, surprised by the edge in Peter’s voice.
TOM: Oh, yeah, nothing but sweetness and light there nowadays. Gotta go. Need to go slay some orcs with Isildur. See you tonight. Happy sermonizing.
NARRATOR: Only three more writing days until Christmas. Up in his study on the second floor of the parish hall, Peter Travers flipped open his MacBook, launched Microsoft Word, and waited for The Word to open up to him.
NARRATOR: Nothing. His brain was white noise; no coherent thought had the agility to jump from his cranium to his fingertips. Peter walked to the window of his book-littered study, gazed at a sky suddenly gone slate, then at blackened leaves poking up through clumps of grimy snow.The Holy Spirit was not yielding its gifts easily this season.
The boiler in the basement clanged loudly.
PETER: Yes, yes, I hear you. Time to deal with you, I guess.
NARRATOR: Peter switched to Excel, clicked on a folder marked FY15 Fiscal. His fingers clicked the keys, swiped the pad. In a few minutes, the deficit Tom had warned about was gone; so were a couple of Peter’s fond dreams for 2015, including a raise for him. He’d kept sacred the extra eight hours that Suzie, the parish secretary, had been begging for. Her husband had been a victim of the merger-driven wreckage in Big Pharma.Peter clicked a tab on the screen; Microsoft Word resumed staring insolently back at him.
PETER (murmuring to himself): So you wanted to be a preacher. Brilliant move, Travers. Yeah, and you had to set the bar high, all those cute theatrics in the early years, the spiritual striptease with the Santa ouffit, the sermon done in the voice of the innkeeper. The sacred bursting through the humdrum, you said. So where’s the sacred now, pal, because your brain is feeling pretty humdrum?
NARRATOR: Peter scanned a mental picture of the packed church that awaited him in a couple of days, the Christmas Eve crowd in all their red-satin and green-plaid finest. Neil McGregor in that Tartan kilt he favors at Yuletime. Marci Bennett in some sleek black dress … no, don’t go there, Reverend. And all the C and E Christians, whatever their names were, the ones who came only on the big holidays, with that smug “dazzle-me–if-you-want-a-check-this-year” look on their faces. Peter’s preaching really was renowned across the diocese. Bishop material, people murmured to one another after he finished one of his visiting minister turns in another parish’s pulpit …
PETER: Holy… Are you kidding me? It’s 3:30 already?! I’ve been sitting here two hours? With not a word written? No, no, no. Lord God in Heaven, what is wrong with me? Well, get your butt in gear, Travers. Take a drive, deliver some gifts, clear the cobwebs.
New Beginnings shelter
(Sound of car pulling up, stopping, car door opens, rustling of bags, car door closes, footsteps)PETER (to himself): OK, Travers, let’s get this done. Ho. Ho. Ho.
NARRATOR: The New Beginnings shelter was a rambling Victorian much in need of a paint job. At Peter’s knock, the door opened to reveal Maura O’Reilly, the bulldog of a former nun who had created this haven for women and children. Five mothers and nine children would spend the holiday there, seeking shelter from the toxic mix of male rage and alcohol.
PETER: Hello, Maura. I come bearing gifts.
MAURA: So, I see, Peter, so I see. And blessings of the season to you, a thousandfold and so on and so forth. Come on in, kind reverend sir. Getting a bit brisk out, there, isn’t it? Just set the bag down by that table, if you would be so kind? (A rustling of the plastic bags). Oh, and I see it’s a fine haul were having this year from the good folk of Trinity Episcopal. So many splendidly wrapped things. Brilliant. Our residents will appreciate it, I can tell you that.
PETER: Well, good, then, Maura. I guess I’ll be off.
MAURA: Peter Travers! I’ll hear of no such thing. Stay for dinner, won’t you? We’ve got a fine stew going in the pot. And the residents would simply love the company. We’ve had a couple new ones come in these last few days. The usual sad tidings of the season, I’m afraid. They’d love It if you could stay for a visit. It would remind them there are some in the world that care about them, and not all men are the kind that wish them ill.
PETER: Sorry, Maura, but I’ve really gotta run.
MAURA (gentle mocking): Ah, could it be then, that the famous pastor, with his sermons published in the paper and all, has no time anymore for the little people?”
PETER: Maura, for God’s sake, give it a rest! STOP BROWBEATING ME! You know what it’s like at this time of year.
NARRATOR: Maura, who’d thought she was engaging in the usual banter with the handsome pastor from just up the road, looked at Peter, stunned, speechless.
PETER: Sorry, sorry . . . I-I have to go.
NARRATOR: Peter lurched out the door and down the path to his car. Maura gazed at his rapidly retreating back.
MAURA: And God be with ye, this chilly night, Peter Travers.
(A car door opens and slams)NARRATOR: Peter slumped into the driver’s seat. He looked at himself in the rearview mirror. Chiseled features, blond hair swept off a forehead that, as Carrie teased, grew “more noble” each year. The very picture of a once-dominant, now-mocked commodity: WASP confidence. But Peter saw something else looking back at him.
PETER: What is happening? What is wrong with you?
ACT 2: THE GIFTS OF FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH
NARRATOR: From the Rector’s Day Book, Tuesday, Dec. 23
9 a.m. Hospital visits11 a.m. Christmas Eve lightingNoon; Rotary Christmas lunch1-4 p.m. Write sermon4 p.m. Christmas pageant rehearsal
NARRATOR: The Rev. Peter Travers stood in the darkened nave of Trinity Episcopal Church, the cold seeping into his toes, the scent of evergreen tickling his nostrils.
PETER: Still a bit too dark, Sam. Bring it up a notch.
SAM (calling out from the next room): You’re sure now, Father?
PETER: Yes, Sam, pretty sure.
SAM: Well, the old rector, Father McMasters, now he liked it plenty dark for the lessons and carols, didn’t he? Thought it made it more dramatic-like.
PETER: Yes, Sam, I do believe you might have mentioned that one or two times before in the eight Christmas Eve services we’ve done together.
SAM: Has it been eight now already, Father? My goodness, hardly seems possible Father McMasters has been gone from us all that time. Eight years … wow.
PETER: Sam, I appreciate how much Father McMasters meant to you. A fine, fine man. I don’t know if he had some special night-vision goggles he wore for Lessons and Carols, but I do know that, in this dark, my old eyes won’t be able to see my Christmas sermon … If I ever get it written that is. Anyway, Sam could you indulge me just this one more time and turn the lighting up just a notch?
SAM: You do have that little reading lamp up there on the pulpit, Father.
SAM: Just teasin’ ya a bit, Father. I’ll set right about turning those lights up a notch for the Lessons and Carols.
PETER: Thank you, Sam.
NARRATOR: Peter didn’t begrudge Sam’s stubborn loyalty to McMasters, who’d taken Sam in when he was a 25-year-old alcoholic without a job. But this week, with his sermon for the coming service still a blank screen, Peter was lamenting every lost minute.
NARRATOR: Leaving Sam to his nostalgia, Peter hustled to a Rotary lunch. The clock in his head ticked loudly as a man from Victory Bank urged him through three courses to agree that cutting the capital gains tax was a moral imperative.
Back in his study at last by 2 p.m., Peter lit every lamp to ward off the wintry gloom. He sat in his big reading chair, a preacher in search of something to preach.
PETER: What if I did something like this …. ? No, that sounds like an outtake from Chicken Soup for the Soul. Luke, Luke, speak to me, buddy, speak to me. A few beats. Yeah, some poetry. Why not? A little poetry to kickstart the old medulla oblongata? Where is that book? Oh, right, over at the house, the bookcase on the upstairs landing.
(Sound of a Sheltie barking)NARRATOR: As Peter entered the manse next door to the church, the family dog, Einstein, did what God put shelties on Earth to do: bark like a maniac. Peter headed for the upper floor of the drafty old pile of stones, where some old book shelves sat. Peter’s 16-year-old, Kyle, had claimed most of the attic for his own. It served as Kyle’s gabled refuge from the suffocating analyses of his reverend dad and therapist mom. Peter had gone along with Kyle’s plan. It was tough enough being a PK – a preacher’s kid – but to be a shrink’s kid, too! Let him have his space.(Footsteps on creaky stairs)Halfway up the steps, Peter detected a familiar smell, sweet but out of place. No doubt about it: incense. Incense, mixed with a hint of another smell, which Peter, an anvil falling in his stomach, recognized, too. Burnt cannabis.Peter put out a knuckle, prepared to rap on Kyle’s door. It paused in midair. Oh, hell! Funny, no matter how much advice Peter confidently dispensed to other parents, the challenges of parenthood still seemed to catch him unprepared, emotionally naked. Courage, reverend. Peter knocked. Then knocked again, harder.
PETER: Dude, you there?
KYLE: Dad? Yeah.
PETER: Can I come in?
KYLE: Yeah. Whatever.
NARRATOR: Kyle was sitting on his bed, playing a game on his laptop.
PETER: Hey. Sooooo… I was wondering: What have you got planned for the vacation, so you don’t go wild with boredom?
KYLE: Nuthin’. There’s nuthin’ to do.
PETER: Right, I know. Nothing to do… Except sledding, skating, snowboarding, hoops – all things you love to do.
KYLE: Sledding? Really? I’m not five, Dad. Could you be more lame?
NARRATOR: When had Kyle’s voice gotten so deep? Peter thought with a touch of panic. Overnight, Kyle had dropped a half an octave. Shouldn’t there be a ceremony or something at such milestones?
PETER: Well, nothing to do is a prescription for trouble. You’re going to fill the time somehow, and I’d like to help you make good choices, because the bad choices are plentiful out there.
KYLE: Jeez, Dad, give it a rest. Save the sermons for Sunday, OK?
PETER: Not a sermon, Kyle. A warning. Whether you know it or not, I’ve been around the block a few times. I know the smell of trouble.
NARRATOR: Kyle’s face jerked up to look at Peter’s, searching for a signal beyond the words. Then he decided the best offense was a good defense.
KYLE: Well, you know, it’s not like I’ve got a lot of options. I can’t go anywhere, because it’s Christmas week, so you’re never around and all of mom’s clients are having breakdowns. And I can’t drive myself. Anyhow, my friends are all away with their parents skiing, which we can never do because it’s freaking Christmas week.
PETER (sigh): (A) Careful with your language. (B) Greg isn’t off skiing, and he’s only been your best friend since forever. What about hanging with him? (C) What about Allie? What’s she up to?KYLE: Whatever it is, it’s not with me.
NARRATOR: Ahhhh, now Peter began to glimpse the real issue.
PETER: Sorry. Didn’t know. That’s never fun. Want to talk about it? You know, before your mom, I had way too much experience with that side of the deal.
NARRATOR: Kyle stared at his laptop, killed off a few digital villains. Then, to Peter’s amazement…
KYLE: Dad, it really sucks. It’s driving me crazy. One minute she’s like texting me like every eight seconds, telling me everything she’s doing, asking me what I’m doing. And she’s wanting me to hang with her, like, just the two of us, not with all her dumb friends. Then, like the other day, in the hall, she’s like, “Oh, Kyle, you’re too clingy,” and then I see with her some guy from the basketball team and now she doesn’t answer my texts.
NARRATOR: Love and sympathy replaced anger and fear. Peter searched for a pithy, TV Dad speech to Explain It All. TV Dad, he’d know just what to say, all inside the 30 seconds before commercial break. But Kyle’s real dad reached into his store of useful wisdom and could find nothing, like a hand wiggling around in an empty cookie jar. All he managed was…
PETER: This… this is tough stuff to deal with, Kyle, but you will.
NARRATOR: Peter gave his son a clumsy hug, then stood in place for a long, awkward moment, his arm clutching Kyle’s shoulder.
PETER: OK, well … I’ll leave you alone now, but think about that other thing I said.
KYLE: Sure. Whatever. See ya.
NARRATOR: Peter walked back to the church. Swirling snow coated the scruffy remains of last week’s blizzard. Squeals and giggles wafted out a church door. The stars of the Christmas pageant were arriving for dress rehearsal.
PETER: Maybe watching them will provide a spark. Or not.
NARRATOR: Rector’s Day Book, for Wednesday Dec. 24
8 a.m. – Men’s Fellowship breakfast11:15 – Altar Guild in sanctuary11:30 – 2:30 p.m. Write sermon4 p.m. – Children’s service/pageant10 p.m. – Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols
NARRATOR: Liz Jamison was a pip, the Rev. Peter Travers thought, as he returned to the parish house and sat at his desk.Seventy-two years old, 5 feet tall and shrinking, Liz still had the instincts of a drill sergeant. He need not have bothered checking on the Altar Guild’s Christmas decorations. Liz had her crew jumping.A congregation ran on the energy and gifts of its laity; the smart pastor got out of the way, letting lay talents flourish while focusing on what he did best.What Peter did best was preaching. Except for now, with his Christmas sermon still taking the form of a blank screen. He typed a few words, just basic summarizing of the Gospel passage from Luke, as though most of his folks didn’t know it by heart already.
(The phone rings)PETER: Trinity Church.
LUCY SPOTSWOOD: Peter, Peter? Is that you? It’s Lucy Spotswood. Do you have a minute?
PETER: Sure, Lucy. What’s up?
LUCY: It’s Trish. Last night George and I were woken up by a call from the borough police. We’d gone to bed early, we don’t usually so early but George… anyway, we’re in bed at about 11 and we get this call. About Trish.
PETER: Is she OK?
LUCY: What? Oh, yes, she’s not hurt… Though she may be when her father gets done with her. The police were calling because they’d just busted up some booze party at a high school senior’s house, and our Trish was there with some of her little friends. We had to go the station and sign her out to bring her home; it took until 3 a.m. George had to work today and he was just fit to be tied. And Trish, she was all … Peter, she wasn’t sorry or crying or anything. And the things she said to her father! It was almost like she was excited, like this was some great movie she was in or something.
LUCY: Yes, that’s it, defiant? Peter, she’s just 13. You know her from youth group; this isn’t like her. This isn’t her.
NARRATOR: Peter’s mind was a jumble of possible responses, all of which struck him as either trite or hypocritical. He’d seen the same movie with his daughter, Molly. Molly was now happily in college— but only after high school years that he had feared would be the death of him. Moments ago, he’d realized that Kyle, his quiet, obedient child, was further down that path than he’d thought. He hadn’t had any wise things to say to him, and he sure didn’t have any to say about Lucy Spotswood’s daughter. Why did people think the collar around his neck made him a parenting expert?
LUCY: Peter, are you there?
PETER: Yes, yes, I am. Look, Lucy, I know this is upsetting but it’s pretty common stuff at this age these days, unfortunately. I’m afraid, given that it’s Christmas Eve, I just have so much to do I can’t go deeply into it with you know. But I’d be happy to sit down with you and George, or with Trish after the holidays, if that’s what you want.
LUCY (after a pause): OK… Is that it? Peter, don’t you have any more immediate advice for us?
PETER: I’m afraid not, Lucy. Look, I really have to go, but I’ll see you tonight, OK?
LUCY: Tonight? Oh, sure, tonight.
PETER: OK, then. I’ve got to go now. Bye.
LUCY: Uh… Bye.
NARRATOR: Lucy’s call began a skein of interruptions about family traumas. Sometimes it seemed Peter was called upon to do more counseling in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas than in the rest of the year combined. The holidays always made the tectonic plates of family life shift and grind, with fiery flare-ups along the fault lines. Today, as with Lucy, he did more parrying than real advising. As he glanced at the time on his iPhone, panic began to put icy clamps on his throat. Suzie, the parish secretary, stuck her head in his office.
SUZIE: Father? Claire St. Cloud called. Eli’s in a bad way. She wonders if you can come over before the 4 o’clock.
NARRATOR: Peter’s heart clenched.
PETER: I’m on my way.
The St. Clouds’ house
NARRATOR: The St. Clouds lived in a snug brick house on the borough’s main drag, near the high school where Eli had been a teacher and principal.Peter lucked into a parking spot. Walking up the path, he noted signs that Eli’s strong hand was waning: the first-floor shutters needed paint; a front-porch swing hung at an awkward angle. Peter’s mind flashed to the first time he’d walked up that path, heading nervously to dinner with the search committee that Eli had headed – which would, after that dinner, offer Peter the call.His mind filled with memories of their long talks and Eli’s always pithy, hard-won advice.
ELI (in Peter’s memory): Peter, Peter, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.Your biggest obstacle, my friend, is your devotion to the myth of your own indispensability. Your job is to create spaces that others can fill with their gifts.Regret is a mug’s game; the path ahead is always so much more interesting.
CLAIRE: Peter! Come in!
NARRATOR: Claire’s greeting was so joyful that Peter blushed. Save the joy for someone who brings healing, not a hollow man stuffed with cliches.A spruce stood in the living room, bravely strung with ornaments that told the tale of the St. Clouds’ 40 years of loving union.
CLAIRE: You look well. The hospice nurse just left, so your timing is good. He should be comfortable. We’ve got him all set up in that little spare bedroom in back.
NARRATOR: As a minister, Peter had watched cancer do its hideous work many times. He’d been here just the week before, after Eli, nixing more surgery, had come home. Still, Peter was shaken by the sight. Beneath his grand white mane and beard, Eli’s face was ghostly. The sinewy body that had made him an All-American basketball player seemed to have collapsed on itself. He slept, mouth agape, lips flecked with white, his breathing a labored syncopation. Claire kissed his forehead.
CLAIRE: Darling, Peter’s here. (she pauses) Ahh, he’s sleeping.
NARRATOR: Peter took out the chrism, the oil for anointing the sick, dipped his thumb and made the sign of the cross on Eli’s forehead. It was cool. Peter had expected fever. He laid his hands gently upon Eli’s head.
PETER: O God, the strength of the weak and the comfort of sufferers.
Mercifully accept our prayers, and grant to your servant ELIthe help of your power, that his sickness may be turned intohealth, and our sorrow into joy; through Jesus Christ ourLord. Amen
NARRATOR: Peter’s eyes stung. Grief shoved him to his knees. His throat raw, he whispered a prayer more personal than pastoral.
PETER: God, please, please take this good man gently. Grant this good woman strength. Help me not to fall apart here.
NARRATOR: Peter rose creakily, worried how his unprofessional spasm of grief had struck Claire.
PETER: Claire… I…
CLAIRE: I know, sweetie, I know. Come out to the living room, Peter. Have some hot tea with me.
NARRATOR: Out in the living room, Peter picked up an old embossed album from the coffee table.
CLAIRE: Our wedding photos. So sappy of me, I know, but… There it is… I was 25 minutes late. My mother and I had so much trouble with the veil. Eli said another minute, and he would have passed out from nerves.
NARRATOR: Peter flipped through the album. As he did, a loose photo fell out: Eli in his Villanova uniform, grinning; Claire next to him, a foot shorter, clutching his arm.
PETER: Quite the stunning pair.
CLAIRE: That one, he’d just scored the winning basket to beat Penn.
PETER: He could’ve played pro, they say. Not that he ever talked about it.
CLAIRE: Absolutely. But back then they weren’t handing fortunes to rookies like they do now. The old Philly Warriors called about a tryout, but the school offered Eli the job teaching and coaching. We wanted to get married. So he went for the sure thing.
PETER: How much did he regret not giving it a try?
CLAIRE (chuckles): Tell me this, Peter Travers. Do you ever wonder how it would have been if you hadn’t left a partnership at McGregor, McCloskey and Tone on the table? Of course you do. Of course he did. Like twins, the two of you are. Great, big hearts dying to serve; great, big egos dying to be famous. The heart pulls you to our little town; the ego never lets you settle in.
PETER: Eli settled in. He was a legend at the school, a rock of the church.
CLAIRE: Yes, he did a lot of good. But, you know, he was a legend, too, for that temper of his. Eli-ruptions the faculty called them. The school board was petrified of him. Where did all that anger come from, Peter, do you think? Maybe the same place yours does?
NARRATOR: Claire patted him on the knee.
CLAIRE: Peter, Peter. The two of you! Honestly, identical twins. Identical twins… Goodness, look at the time! Almost 3:20. You need to get to the church.
PETER: Will you be OK? Will someone be here tonight?
CLAIRE: My sister will be here shortly. I’ll be fine. Please tell everyone how much we appreciate their prayers, their kindnesses. And thank you, Peter, I feel so much better now Eli has had your prayers.
PETER: Always, Claire. Eli is . . . he’s like . . . well … you know.
CLAIRE: I know, Peter. So does he. Now, go. Merry Christmas.
ACT 3: The Gift of the Journey
The Travers’ house
NARRATOR: Peter’s wife tossed the question over her shoulder as she peeled potatoes for Christmas Eve dinner.
CARRIE: Do you know what your son did today?
PETER: Oh, no. What now?
NARRATOR: Peter was running late for the 4 p.m. children’s service and pageant, but her words froze his hand on the knob of the back door.
CARRIE: No, nothing bad, silly. Kyle got up this morning and shoveled Mrs. King’s walk next door, without being asked. Do you know what got into him?
PETER: No clue. Just another mystery of God’s grace, I guess. Boy, you had me going there. My stomach did a reverse somersault from the pike position.
CARRIE: Why? Did you and Kyle have another one of your head-buttings?
PETER: Sort of, but maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought, with what you just said. I’ll talk it through with you later, but really I gotta go now. The Christmas pageant waits on no man, not even the rector.
NARRATOR: The Christmas Eve pageant for Trinity Church’s children went off as usual: silly, chaotic and sweet. Suzie’s grand surprise, the appearance of two live sheep with their pint-sized shepherds, elicited squeals and chuckles. Afterward, as Peter was removing his vestments, Suzie rushed in.
SUZIE: Uh, Father, we have a problem. You know how we ended up with sheep from a different farmer, because of the barn fire? Well, this one, I didn’t really plan it out with him. He’s apparently not coming to pick them up for a couple hours.
PETER: OK, so where are they now?
SUZIE: In the fellowship hall; and they’re… Well, Father, they’re just pooping up a storm, that’s what they’re doing. It’s awful. I can’t budge ’em.
PETER: Dear God in heaven. Suzie, new rule. No more live animals in the pageant… But what to do now? Seems to me the thing to do is try to get them into the children’s playground; that’s all fenced in. I’ll need some help.
NARRATOR: Peter took out his cell phone, and tapped.
(Ring tone)KYLE: Yeah?
PETER: Kyle, it’s Dad.
KYLE: Yeah, I know. iPhones, amazing what they do. Someday you should learn, Dad.
PETER: Listen, wise guy. I need your help. We got a definite situation over here at the church.
PETER: I got two live sheep pooping their brains out in fellowship hall. We need to get ‘em outside into the tots playground space.
KYLE (laughing): Two sheep? That is so random. Good work, reverend.
KYLE: I’m coming, I’m coming.
(Sheep, BAA-ING)NARRATOR: A few minutes later, Peter and Kyle stood side by side in the fellowship hall, the son’s hands-on-hips posture unconsciously mimicking the father’s.
KYLE: Well, that’s two live sheep right there, for sure.
KYLE: Jeez, it stinks in here.
KYLE: Dad, we could probably, you and I, try picking ‘em up and carrying ‘em out. ‘Cept I don’t much want to, ‘cause they, like, ya know… really, really stink.
KYLE: Let me try something.
NARRATOR: Kyle walked over behind the two sheep, which looked straight ahead, dumbly, taking no note of his movements.
KYLE: Shoo! Go!! Out the door!!!! Yee-hahhhh!!!
NARRATOR: The sheep did not budge.
KYLE: Well, that didn’t work.
PETER: Nope.(They pause)
KYLE: Dad!!!!! I got it! Einstein!!!
PETER: Kyle! You’re right! You’re a genius! Go grab him from the house.
NARRATOR: In minutes, Kyle was back with the family Sheltie on his red-and-green plaid Christmas leash. Seeing the sheep, Einstein went on high alert. (Lots of Sheltie barking)
PETER: Let him off leash. Let’s see what genetic coding can do.(BARKING and BA-AING)
NARRATOR: A lot, it turned out. Einstein had never seen a sheep before in his life, but he knew what to do when he met two. Nipping at the sheep’s flanks, barking instructions, Einstein herded the sheep out the door and into the playground. Kyle slammed shut the gate, and high-fived his dad.
PETER: Great job, dude. That ought to hold the little poop factories until their owner gets here. Now, unfortunately, we need to go back in the hall and help Suzie clean up.
KYLE: Dad!!!…Oh, all right. But you owe me.
NARRATOR: Two hours until the processional for the service of Lessons and Carols. The rest of the family was down in the kitchen, cleaning up from Carrie’s wonderful feast.Peter has excused himself to “go polish his sermon.” Now he sat looking glumly at his laptop’s blank screen.
PETER: I need a deus ex machina. God, yoo-hoo, where are you hiding in this machine?
NARRATOR: Peter clicked on a subfolder called “St. Paul’s sermons,” from his days as an associate at the Bucks County parish. Maybe he could just recycle one of his sermons from those salad days. Trinity folk had never heard those. Any port in a storm, right?
PETER: Sure, Travers, great idea. Lie to the flock on Christmas Eve. Pathetic.
NARRATOR: Einstein, who’d been lying at Peter’s feet, got up, stretched, pawed his shin expectantly.
PETER: Well, buddy, I guess you’ve definitely earned a little walk tonight.
NARRATOR: Outside, Einstein tugged on the leash, straining to head for the field across the street. The night sky was clearing. Between the branches of the old oak in his front yard, a star shimmered. Einstein tugged again.
PETER: Oh, so you want to follow that Christmas star? Why not? I could use an encounter with some wise men right now.
NARRATOR: His mind skittered to a poem, the one he’d been seeking before he’d smelled marijuana in the stairway outside Kyle’s room. He’d know that poem by heart back in college. Peter stared up at the star between the branches. The first line of it came to him.
PETER: “A cold coming we had of it.” But they kept coming, those wise men, didn’t they, Einstein? They showed up. And, like the man said, 80 percent of life is just showing up. Eli loved that line … I mean, loves it.
NARRATOR: At that instant, light from the star seemed to arc across the galaxy and flood Peter’s brain. His mind’s eye rifled through the events of the last stressful days. Peter grinned at the star.
PETER: Quite the kidder, aren’t you, Lord? Had to make me sweat. ‘Course, I deserved it. But thank you. And … happy birthday. C’mon, Einstein. Hurry up. Hurry up. Do your business. The reverend’s got a sermon to write.
Trinity Episcopal Church
(A crowd gathering, low murmur)NARRATOR: Annie Moyer was frazzled. It had seemed like a good idea a few days ago, graduating the girls to the big people’s service at 10. Now — as Annie tensely scanned the nave of Trinity Church, looking for a pew where she, her husband and her two girls could wedge in — not so much. What with Sophie and Emily fussing with their clothes and hair, then the hunt for parking, they were 15 minutes later than she’d wanted. The girls were already tired and whiny. She tugged on her husband’s elbow.
ANNIE: See up there, I can squeeze in there with the girls, and it looks like you can fit in there in the pew behind.
NARRATOR: Kevin complied wordlessly. From Black Friday to the big day, Christmas season was Annie’s show. He knew better than to resist.
ANNIE: Soph, slide over a bit. Give your sister some room. Here, girls, give me your coats; I’ll fold them up here.
NARRATOR: Sophie was 12, Emily 10. Annie thought they were getting old for that goofy children’s service, and she pined to get back to the gorgeous music and luscious smells of the Lessons and Carols service she’d so loved growing up. But the tense Christmas Eve dinner with Kevin’s family, combined with the girls’ crankiness getting ready, had drained the Christmas spirit out of Annie. Her mind bounced around, from presents still unwrapped and side dishes still unprepared, to the memo she’d left unfinished today at work.
ANNIE: Emily, sit up straight. Sophie, put that lip gloss away.
(“Adeste Fidelis” plays on an organ)NARRATOR: The opening processional began. A boy from Sophie’s class led it, carrying the cross, then the rector.
ANNIE (To herself): “Such a handsome man…”
NARRATOR: … Annie thought. The parish choir followed, 40 strong in maroon robes, singing as they walked to the altar. Annie tried to soak in the smell of evergreens and incense, the dim, mellow light, the riot of flowers on the altar.
ANNIE: C’mon, Christmas, come.
NARRATOR: Instead, Annie’s mind skittered to the annoying things Kevin’s mother had said in the kitchen tonight. She felt Emily’s head droop onto her shoulder. Yes, she’d been a fool to bring the girls to a service right at their bedtime. She wrapped an arm around her younger daughter.
ANNIE: It’s OK, honey, put your head there; you can close your eyes.
NARRATOR: A few carols and readings went by. Annie barely noted the familiar phrases of the Christmas story. God, Kevin’s mother could be annoying. Just then, the rector mounted the pulpit.
ANNIE (to herself in mind voice): Goodness, time for the sermon already. Please make it a short one, reverend.
NARRATOR: Peter stood in the pulpit, waiting for the congregations to settle into the pews. He scanned the rows of faces, some beloved, others unfamiliar. So much struggle, so much love, so many journeys – all gathered in this holy hour, this sacred place. He began…
PETER: Friends, welcome and a blessed Christmas.As we heard those familiar words from Luke, did you mentally tick off the items from that oh-so-familiar creche scene? Angels on high: check! Barn animals: check! Shepherds: check! Wise men . . . wait a minute, where the heck are the wise men?No, Luke doesn’t have any wise men. In our customs, we’ve imported them from Matthew, to fill out the manger scene – and to justify our mania for buying gifts.With apologies to Luke, tonight I’m going to skip right past his angels and shepherds and focus on Matthew’s Magi. You see, it is those Wise Men, their gifts and their journey, that have helped me figure out my own journey this Christmas week.By tradition, the Wise Men numbered three, named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Their gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh.But you know all that.
ANNIE (in her mind’s voice): Actually, I didn’t know that. What I really want to know is: What the heck is myrrh anyway? And how, God, can a little girl’s head be so heavy; Emily you’re killing me here.
PETER: So here’s a trick question: Of all the gifts of the Magi, what was the greatest?To help answer that riddle, let me enlist the help of a second set of wise men, a modern and motley crew.The first is the poet T.S. Eliot, a fellow Anglican. The second is Woody Allen, not an Anglican by any means – but then again, neither was Balthasar. The third one, well, it’s someone many of you know quite well, a man I’d give anything to see sitting here tonight: Eli St. Cloud.First, ol’ Tom Eliot. He wrote a poem once about the Magi. Here are a few lines:
A cold coming we had of it,Just the worst time of the yearFor a journey, and such a long journey:The ways deep and the weather sharp,The very dead of winter.And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,Lying down in the melting snow.. . . A hard time we had of it.At the end we preferred to travel all night,Sleeping in snatches,With the voices singing in our ears, sayingThat this was all folly.
ANNIE: Oh, I wish he wouldn’t do that show-offy stuff, letting us know how well-read he is. Though I do think I kind of remember that poem from Ms. De Clerc’s class.
PETER: See the neat trick the poet plays here, getting us to look at the whole deal from the Magi’s point of view.These were men of distinction, the Magi, learned counselors to kings, often sent as emissaries to other lands. Think of them as John Kerry on a camel. Part of the lore they studied were signs in the heavens.They knew they might have been wrong about what that rising star meant. But they just had to know more, to see this mysterious king.The poet describes so vividly what they endured so they could see. Worse than the cold and the annoyances, there was this: the nagging fear that they were on a fool’s errand, a waste of spirit on a false hunch.So what was their greatest gift? Gold? Perfume? Oil? (That’s what myrrh is by the way, anointing oil like we still use here today.) No, not those. Those were just excess from their wealth.What was their chief gift to the newborn king? It was: their stubborn journey.Their present was their presence.Or as Woody Allen, that wise guy, once said, ‘Eighty percent of life is just showing up?’Amen, brother Woody.
ANNIE: Woody Allen? Wow, he’s pulling stuff in from everywhere, even perverts. But “their present was their presence” – I kinda liked that.
Shift over just a little bit, won’t you, Emily?
PETER: Sometimes, just showing up – when it means something, when someone needs your presence – can be the hardest gift to give, but the greatest.That truth often eludes our grasp. We think of gifts first as things we buy with our plenty. Even at a deeper level, when we speak of making a gift of ourselves, we focus first on the talents that most please us, that feed our egos.I do that, I confess. Big time. I get caught up in my skill at playing with words – when I’m preaching, counseling, doing Bible study. Even when on one level I’m using a gift to help others, to love my neighbor, on another level it’s still all about loving myself: Look at me, how wise I am, how perceptive, how funny.As did many of you, I’m sure, I found the last few days very stressful.But if I look back at them with my wise men by my side, I see things I missed. I see that I’ve been so consumed with ego about my ‘gifts,’ I’ve failed to pay attention on my journey. I never noticed that 80 percent of what life wanted out of me was simply to show up. And, sometimes, to shut up.
ANNIE: I wish Kevin’s mother could hear what he’s saying. Yeah, just shut up sometimes… But then again, maybe me too. I’m so busy making things my kind of perfect I sort of miss what’s really going on.
PETER: One day this week, at New Beginnings shelter, I was in such a hurry to dump off a bag of donated Christmas gifts that I never noticed what the folks there really wanted. It wasn’t the presents; it was my presence. The moment was all about showing up. I flunked.The next day, someone close to me needed me. Again, I thought it was all about my words, my alleged wisdom. Luckily, I was plumb out of wisdom that day. Turned out, all he needed was for me to be present, to shut up, to listen.Then, this afternoon, I went to see our friend Eli, that great and good man who has been such a presence in all our lives. Eli St. Cloud: Now there’s someone who shows up.My friends, the words hurt to say: We are losing Eli. It’s by God’s grace that he’s made it to this Christmas. Eli is dying, and this afternoon that realization so desolated me that I could not find words of comfort for his wife, Claire.
ANNIE: Eli St. Cloud is dying? Oh, no. How could I not have known? Sophie so loved him in church school.
PETER: But, again, Claire taught me. She didn’t care that I had no magic words to make her pain disappear. She knows there are no shortcuts on this journey.But she helped me see that, simply by showing up, through no merit of my own, I helped her feel two presences far more important than mine. One is that of all of you in this congregation, your love and support for Claire and Eli. The other presence, which surpasses all of us and all our understanding, is that of God.Thinking about Eli teaches me even more about presence and the journey. As the poet recounts, the Magi traveled hard distances. But journeys are not always a matter of distant lands. Sometimes the real point of the journey is to end up where you began and finally see it for all that it is.So it was with Eli. He is a man of extravagant gifts. He could have made his mark in sports arenas, towering buildings, even the U.S. Congress. Don’t imagine it was easy for him to forgo such glamorous journeys. But he chose instead to give the gift of his presence here, to our town, our children, our Trinity Church.And I’ll take that gift over gold, frankincense or myrrh – any day of the week.
NARRATOR: Emily’s head slid off her mother’s shoulder, fell into her lap. Stroking her daughter’s hair, Annie felt her eyes water. It was as if the scent of evergreens, the hint of incense, the flickering light, the rows of well-known faces had all come together to wrap her in a warm, enveloping embrace.
ANNIE: He’s right. The important thing is we’re here together, the people I love most in the world.
PETER: So, my beloved travelers on the journey, let us go forth on this joyous night and be Magi to one another. Let us make our journey a gift to others. Let us value the present of presence. Let us never fail, when our neighbor needs us, to give the priceless gift of showing up.
Merry Christmas.ANNIE: Yes. Merry Christmas.
CREDITS: The Gifts of the Magi is a WHYY radio and web production. Elisabeth Perez Luna directed and produced the radio play. Charlie Kaier handled audio engineering and mixing, with an assist from Adam Staniszewski.
The play was performed by WHYY’s Not Ready for Deadline Players, with Naomi Starobin as narrator and Chris Satullo as Peter Travers. Other parts were played by Craig Santoro, Carolyn Beeler, Don Henry, Eric Walter, Mary Cummings-Jordan, Peter Crimmins, John Timpane, Shai ben-Yaacov, Judith Schultz, Kimberly Haas, Marty Moss-Coane, Katie Colaneri, Eugene Sonn and Nora O’Dowd.
Marilyn DiAngelo produced this online version of the story, with the original drawings by Tony Auth. Previous WHYY holiday plays with Auth illustrations are also archived at NewsWorks dot org.
Special thanks for their invaluable assistance to Eliza Auth, David Leopold, John Sheehan, Barbara Dundon, the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel and the good people of the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the Fields in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia.
A note from the author:
Allow me to wish you a warm and meaningful holiday season. This year, we at WHYY have dedicated our holiday play to the memory of our wonderful colleague, Tony Auth, who died last September.
For decades at The Philadelphia Inquirer, then more recently as WHYY’s artist in residence, Tony delighted, informed and sometimes inflamed readers with his pungent, beautifully drawn cartoons. He also was a fine friend and mentor to hundreds of people, many of whom spoke of what he meant to them at his memorial service.
From 1996 on, I had the joy of collaborating with Tony on these annual Christmas stories, which were his idea originally. I wrote the words; he drew the pictures. Then we both joined WHYY, where we added acting – sort of – to our Christmas presentations.
Tony drew great Joy from his work, which is why he was such a joy to work with. So it seems fitting to dedicate this holiday play, illustrated by Tony’s pen, to him and to all who loved him.
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