Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Few Notes on the Christmas Pageant

[J]

My brother-in-law and I are directing the Christmas pageant again this year. It's year two for us. Before last year, my mother was responsible for about 143 years (give or take...) of Christmas pageants, without a break. Each year, she'd invent, devise, adapt, or plagiarize a new script for the first half of the Christmas eve pageant. (The second half featured pretty much the same nativity story each time, with a few variations.) Each December, under her forceful direction, hundreds of milling, mewling children would transform into thespians straight out of the Old Vic.

The original (more or less) scripts that she'd write each year allowed her to add something new to the nativity story, and to explore or invent new tales of Christmas. There are extant scripts featuring a cobbler, a juggler, talking animals, Saint Nicholas (the real one, not Santa Claus!), Saint Francis, and a wide variety of characters. Often she'd find an existing story to adapt, like the story "Why the Chimes Rang." (That's the script that my brother-in-law and I have resurrected for this year's pageant. It was originally performed in 1992. We have so many of Mom's old scripts that we could go on for the next decade just recycling the good ones.)

Before her death, Mom had actually begun revising her pageant scripts and notes with vague ideas of publishing them. I wish she had gotten further with that project. I especially wish that she had recorded her many memories of the unseen events and backstage stories of pageants over the years. At some point in the 1980s, Mom began using real adult parents with their own infant to play the holy family... rather than squirelly kids and a plastic baby doll. This occasionally created some competition among the church families who had babies born in late summer. (A good solid five-month-old makes an excellent baby Jesus... big enough to wave and coo and gurgle cutely, but not yet mobile or unrealistically large.) Of course, a live baby Jesus can be unpredictable. Some sleep, some scream, some spit up. And occasionally the other members of the holy family can add complications. One year, the father who was to play Joseph walked out on his wife and child on Christmas eve. Mary and the baby Jesus showed up at the church that evening and another father ended up playing Joseph.

My mother's involvement as writer and director of so many pageants also provided her with many opportunities for nepotism. I was drafted into every possible role at some point or other, both onstage and backstage. I grumbled about this as a teen, but it's now so much a part of my Christmas memories that I can't imagine a Christmas eve without the pageant. And I wouldn't know how to just sit and watch. E. and I have, of course, played our roles as an exceptionally lovely holy family (with baby B. as Jesus). Mom had no qualms about roping potential sons- and daughters-in-law into the pageant. While E. and I were engaged, Mom persuaded E. to narrate the Christmas pageant with me. That was E.'s first pageant experience... and she didn't flee screaming into the night.

Last year, the first Christmas after Mom's death, my siblings and their spouses and E. and I all agreed that we weren't ready to let the pageant pass to new hands. And so we revised one of Mom's old scripts and my brother-in-law and I directed, and my sister and I narrated. This year, no one else seemed to volunteer, and here we are again. I can tell that we are teetering on a dangerous edge... either we must announce that it's time for someone else to take on the pageant and let go of the whole thing (assuming someone can be found who wants it)... or we are committing ourselves to an open-ended run as pageant-masters.

Anyway, this year eldest daugher is a shepherd, with TM as a sheep and D as a billy goat (his leftover Halloween costume). B is "little brother" from the "Why the Chimes Rang" portion of the script. And A and P sing in the angel choir. And, of course, E is children's choir director. At least no one is left out.

And really, despite all of the hurly-burly and logistical challenges, the pageant is for me (as I think it was for my mother) a profound act of worship. It's not just cute kids in bathrobes (heck, we don't even use bathrobes!); it is a gift of praise to the Christ-child, God with us, our Savior.
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