On Christmas Eve many of you will see again, or remember from Christmases past, a simple pageant with small children acting out the story we have all heard so many times before. But unless you were once part of a pageant in some way, at some time you might not know about the back stories for these productions that take place in churches all over the world. The humor, innocence and love that happen are unavoidable little treasures that are born from these Christmas pageants. It was more than 25 years ago now, when I was in charge of this particular pageant in our little church. I wrote about it back then and over the years have edited it some, but for the most part it is the same story I shared with many of the people who were there with me that year. This year I'd also like to share it with you, my friends. I hope you enjoy it and Merry Christmas!
The setting: A small new England church on a cold winter afternoon, snow threatening, dusk descending. Street lights beginning to come on, lights ablaze inside the building where all the activity was taking place.
It was to be the only rehearsal and it was the afternoon of the 23rd. An eleven year old had been cast as Joseph and was eager to play his role upon his arrival, as he ran into the church hall, wrapped in scarf and stocking cap. However, having arrived earlier, ten year old Mary would have none of it and took it upon herself to give the part to her 4 year old sister. This would be just the first of the challenges for the adults who had everything cast and choreographed in their heads for weeks. The difference in height of about two feet between new Mary and old Joseph would be awkward, to say the least. We knew we could reason with the eleven year old easier than the 4 year old who had already adorned a blue robe and head piece and was playing with the baby Jesus doll. So, with no warning, Joseph became a Wise Man and a more suitable Joseph was cast to play opposite the diminutive Mary.
A few dishtowels, some neckties and some bits of cloth and we had our cast ready for dress rehearsal. The new miniature Mary and Joseph were perfect. The angels were lovely with their silver wings and tinsel halos. The shepherds, although few in number, looked surprisingly authentic in bathrobes, towel head pieces and crooks, fashioned out of broom handles and metal by one of the fathers. The three Wise Men, two in crowns and one in my gray and black shawl, shot with sparkling, silver metallic threads secured by a black necktie around his head, looked regal. The rehearsal was going beautifully as we ran through it the first time in spite of last minute casting changes.
Suddenly, we were blind sided again when the Wise Man who had once been Joseph decided he no longer wanted to be in the production. He sat in the pew, arms folded stubbornly across his chest, unmoved by his mother, begging him to reconsider. He was, after all, the only sixth grader there and decided he just was not going to be in this little kid pageant. Besides, he explained, he and his class would be lighting the Christ Candle in church on Christmas Eve and thought that was plenty for him to be doing that night.
We just can’t have a pageant with only two Wise Men? Can we? There really weren’t an abundance of children that year and we were already short on shepherds, so we couldn’t really spare one. And the angels were totally unwilling to give up their wings. As panic started to take root, out of the chaos there came a single voice in answer to a prayer muttered out loud in frustration. A little bit shy and hesitantly, a boy, new to my Sunday school class, had stepped forward. Raising his hand he said “I can do it.” He didn’t know more than a handful of the other kids there. He had no plans to be in the pageant and had only come because his sister was an angel and his mother brought him along. This boy had been in Cub Scouts with my sons so I knew him a little and had a soft spot for him. He had some physical challenges that he met bravely every day and I was so happy when he appeared in church one Sunday morning. On this day he recognized we needed a hero, and he certainly was that for me. I know his mom brought him along hoping something would happen that afternoon that would make him feel more like part of the group. To me, it felt like just a tiny Christmas miracle, or at the very least a Hallmark moment. With a big hug of thanks from the Moms and me and some pats on the back from the other two wise men, we had him robed and crowned in no time.
Now we were ready for the second run-through. Having once again assembled our Wise Men three, and with the entire cast sucking on candy canes provided by one kind mother during the recasting crisis, we lined them all up to go through it one final time.
Then just as we were about to begin, little Mary said very loudly and on the verge of tears “I want to wear wings! I hate this costume!” This time we didn't panic. The other moms and I were starting to have faith enough to expect a miracle, or at least that an alternate Mary would be found. With some quickly applied psychology, we managed to talk the very tiniest of angels into trading her wings for the baby Jesus doll. As she tenderly cradled the baby in her arms and stood beside Joseph, who was completely uninterested in anything other than his candy cane, which he had sucked down to a dangerously sharp point, somehow I knew it would work.
So, on with the rehearsal. New little Mary did very well, in spite of whipping the baby out from under her robes a little over enthusiastically, but on cue at the proper time in the scripture reading. Joseph stood by, stalwart and sticky.
The shepherds were appropriately fearful as the Angel appeared to them, although a few words asking them to stop hooking their crooks together was necessary. The wise men were acting more like wise guys but we knew they’d come through in the end. And the Angels…well they looked like angels.
A few last minute reminders to everyone about when to arrive the next night, a wave and a few hugs and off they went into the late afternoon. Hopefully they would return the following night…on time.
And they did. They were all there and a few more we hadn’t been expecting. But the addition of several angels gave us the multitude we needed. There was a little panic when everyone had arrived except our tiny Mary but soon she was there as well. Gathered together in the church office to wait for the moment with angels in sparkling wings and halos, shepherds with crooks, three wise men with crowns and gifts and Mary and Joseph with Baby Jesus felt magical.
One of our Wise Men had a concern, however. His gift for the Christ child was actually a Wishbone salad dressing bottle with colored water inside, dressed up with sparkling aluminum foil and looked quite good, we thought. But he thought that his gift should be gold, in keeping with the scriptures and he was quite put out. He and his family were originally from Great Britain and his mother, who had a lovely voice, was the one who would be reading the King James Version of the scriptures that night while the children acted out their parts. In his proper English accent, he said “Mummy, when you read it could you please change it to Frankincense, Silver and Myrrh?” She was a little bit on edge and told him in no uncertain terms “Ian! It has been “gold” for two thousand years and I am not going to change it tonight!”
As we waited it became apparent to all of us there in that crowded little room just what Christmas was about. These children who were most certainly excited that it was Christmas Eve and Santa was coming, for that brief time were thinking only of the story and what happened back in that stable thousands of years before and they knew it was happening again that night. For weeks and weeks before they could hardly think of anything but what presents would be under their trees. These thoughts were put aside just for a short time, on this night of nights.
Soon the time came and as our tiny Joseph and Mary walked down the center aisle they looked so small. Every eye in that crowded church was on them. Mary was hiding the baby Jesus under her robes, clutching him lovingly and carefully so as not to give away her secret too early. Joseph led her carefully, focused and determined with a knowing smile on his sweet little face. At that moment everyone watching just saw a tiny Mary and Joseph making their way to the manger at the front of the sanctuary. But, these two little ones knew, and I knew, and all the children in the pageant knew, that Baby Jesus was right there with them, too. The angels, the shepherds and the three wise men, with their frankincense, silver and myrrh brought to life for everyone there that night, the story we were all there to hear once more.
It was a glorious night of peace, joy, hope and love. It was the simplest of pageants to portray the most wonderful of stories.
May that peace, joy, love and hope be yours this Christmas and always.
Although I have looked, I can not find any photos from that pageant, but if any of you have some, please share and I will post them here. For now, I did find a photo with all three Wise Men cutting up as usual in my Sunday school class from about the same era. And I found a photo of little Mary, as well. And I am including some "Where are they now" photos below as well.
|The three wise men that year are in this photo. In back row on far left in white shirt, Carl. Third from left, dramatically leaning backwards under Jesus' photo, Ian And last on the right, my handsome son, Bill.|
|Wise Man Ian "Silver" Davis, today.|
|My Wise Man son Bill Petersen, minus the shawl on his head, and his family today.|