Oh, how I could relate to the mother who gained directorship of the church Christmas pageant by default in Barbara Robinson’s "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." In fact, so well could I relate, I decided to adapt that very story about a group of misfit kids invited to church with the promise of refreshments, who eventually bully their way into taking the main roles in the church’s Christmas pageant.
I was a second-year middle school teacher and a mother of three – soon to be four. I taught Sunday school but really had no desire to direct the church Christmas pageant. Unfortunately, I had yet to learn the art of saying “No” and meaning it. No one else stepped up, and so here I was, eight months pregnant, organizing our first practice.
My adapted version of this familiar Christmas story was purposefully written with a narrator and few actual lines for the kids to memorize. With most of my young actors' sporadic attendance, I knew the struggle I faced in scheduling productive practices. And, almost like the bullying Herdman kids from the original book, I coerced a high school student into the role of narrator.
Beginning practices were scheduled for Wednesday evenings and Sundays during the Sunday school hour for the month of November. Two full weeks later, the cast was assigned and enough people in attendance to finally read through the entire play. Just two weeks from delivering a newborn, the stress mounted. At the last November practice, I handed out a modified practice schedule: Wednesday evenings, Sunday mornings, and now Sunday nights. I sent a note home begging the parents to make sure their sons and daughters attended each practice.
I delivered my fourth child, a son, December 1, the first scheduled Sunday night practice, so I had no idea how many parents actually drove through the snow to ensure their sons and daughters were at the church while I lay in the hospital bed holding the newest addition to my family. The following Wednesday, I showed up for practice exhausted and just a wee bit short-tempered. I explained that only two weeks remained before we would be putting this production on for the congregation.
“What’s the congregation?” asked one young actor. Oh, what a fitting story for this group of children to perform, I thought. In the original story, the misfit children who took over the main parts of the pageant had never been inside a church, had not heard of Jesus or Mary, or any other reference to religion that my regular attendees had portrayed in pageants over the past few years. At the end of practice, I reminded Abby for perhaps the fortieth time to bring her decorative bags that her mother had promised to make to represent the gold, frankincense and myrrh the three wise men would carry.
Sunday morning of pageant day arrived, and still, no bags. Groaning with frustration at the irresponsible parent who had promised to help with this small task, I realized if I wanted bags, I’d need to make them myself before tonight’s performance. Hmph! But that afternoon, Abby called to say she had the bags and they were already in the car so she wouldn’t forget. Very few costumes or props were needed for this production. The cradle, the large star, and the robes and halos would take little time to turn this misfit group of regular church youth and their non-attending friends into the roles they represented.
That evening, forty-five minutes before start time, we gathered in a room in the education wing as far away from the sanctuary as we could so our excited babbling would not detract from the holy-child-anticipation of the gathering congregants. I began to relax and think, “This is going to go okay, and in 45 minutes, it will all be over.” Then "Mary" came up to me with the news that she had left our “baby Jesus” doll at home after Sunday school.
Our church nursery had numerous dolls, mostly Barbies with missing arms or chopped hair, none of which would serve as Baby Jesus. Frantically, I glanced around the room; my gaze rested on my newborn peacefully sleeping in the car seat in the corner of the nursery. In a panic-forced moment of insanity, I decided my newborn would have to become the star of the pageant. He had been fed, was dry, and would surely sleep. At the appointed hour, we marched down the steps, filing into the sanctuary at the signal of the narrator.
The performance proceeded amazingly well, given the disorganization of our earlier dress rehearsal. The congregation laughed in all the appropriate places, the students quietly cued each other when necessary, and the story of the Herdmans who took over the pageant knowing absolutely nothing about church or Jesus was clearly portrayed by my young actors.
When the narrator gave the cue for the three wise men to enter from the back of the sanctuary, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that this scene would conclude our pageant. But from the back of the church I heard some minor scuffling and the first king stumbled through the entryway into the center aisle as if being shoved from behind. Standing upright and regaining control, he stopped abruptly when he realized all eyes in the sanctuary were on him.
From the front pew, I suddenly realized his fear. We had never practiced in front of an audience, and this particular student was one of our friends-of-a-member, occasional-Sunday-school -only attendees who had never been inside the sanctuary with people in the pews. I leaned toward the aisle and beckoned him forward, worried that we might never re-enact the full manger scene if our wise men didn’t have enough nerve to put one foot in front of the other. Finally he moved. As practiced, precisely four steps behind followed the second wise man. Wise man number three counted four paces and followed suit. All three carried their beautiful gifts for the newborn king.
As they slowly marched toward the front, I heard snickers and muffled giggles from the congregation. Not until they reached the front pew did I fully understand these mirthful moments. Their very elegant purple velvet bags had once held Crown Royal whiskey, clearly labeled on the side of each one.
I silently groaned, anticipating a later rebuke from the minister and more certainly, from one of our elderly members who seemed to view all youth activities with a critical eye. Then our baby Jesus began to squirm and emitted a tiny squeak as a prequel to his normal wake-up wail.
“Not yet!” I thought. But immediately “Mary” picked him up and gently cradled him in her arms, as any mother would do, soothing him into sleep again. And, like the ending of the story upon which we based our play, a look of sheer wonder passed over her face as the "angel of the Lord" threw her hands into the air and yelled loudly, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
I received no criticism, no rebukes, but rather laughter and praise for the fresh view of the traditional Christmas pageant. The following year when the time arose, I politely declined the request to direct the pageant with the excuse that baby Jesus would no longer fit in the cradle, and surely we should allow someone else to experience the Christmas pageant joy. And this time, "no" meant no.