Fireside Christmas Story // The Perfect Christmas Pageant

You’ve probably been to a Christmas pageant, if not this year than in Christmas’ past. Just last week a video went viral of a little 2-year-old “sheep” who stole Baby Jesus right out of the manger. If you’re like us, moments like this are the best part of the program.

With all of the hustle and bustle in this week before Christmas, we thought we’d give you a chance to unwind a bit .. so settle in, cuddle up, grab a nice warm cup of coffee or cocoa, and listen to a Fireside Christmas Story with Uncle Peter.

This one is called The Perfect Christmas Pageant, and was originally published in Good Housekeeping Magazine in 1987.

The Perfect Christmas Pageant, by Rev. ML Lindvall

Last year I received a Christmas card from a former seminary classmate of mine. Inside the card was a letter – not one of those mimeographed Christmas letters in which people proudly share news of their children’s extraordinary achievements and their own various illnesses of the past year, but an honest-to-goodness letter, written to me personally. I sat down recently to reread this unusual piece of correspondence, and I want to share its contents with you here.

Dear Michael (it began), I accepted the call to that little church I told you about last winter – and yesterday was our annual children’s Christmas pageant. It was wonderful, but now that it’s over my blood pressure has probably dropped about 20 points.

The whole saga really begins 47 Christmases ago when Doris Peterson first directed the pageant, something she continued to do through seven pastors and who knows how many Christian Education Committees. Presidents came and went, three wars were fought, hundreds of children passed through Sunday school, and Doris Peterson directing her Christmas pageant was like a great rock in a turbulent sea.

I never saw one of Doris’s pageants (we’ve only been here since spring), but I’ve heard about them. They always had precisely nine characters, no more, no less: one Mary, one Joseph, three Wise Men, two shepherds, one angel and one narrator. The script was the Christmas story out of the King James Bible, which meant that two six-year-old shepherds had to learn to say “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”

Doris’s goal was nothing less than perfection: perfect lines, perfect pacing, blocking, and enunciation – perfect everything. That is not easily achieved with little children, even with nine carefully selected ones. Critics said Doris would have worked with nine midget actors if she thought she could have gotten away with it.

Time and again people tried to get Doris to open things up so that every youngster who wanted a part could have one. “Doris,” they would say, “scripture says there was a heavenly host, not just one lonely angel.”

“Doris, why not have a few more shepherds, and then everybody could take part in the pageant?”

“Doris, if there were shepherds, there had to be sheep, too, right? We can make little sheep costumes.”

“No,” Doris would say. “When there are too many youngsters, there is no control.”

Early this fall, however, something happened. The Christian Education Committee included three mothers of last year’s rejected Marys, Josephs, shepherds and Wise Men. These young mothers passed the following motion: “Resolved: All children who wish to be in the Christmas pageant may do so. Parts will be found for them.”

Doris heard about it that night and was in my office the next morning at 9 A.M. sharp. “If those women know so much, let them be in charge,” she spit out. Before I could reply, she resigned as director of the pageant.

The pageant, as I said, was yesterday. The young mothers didn’t fall flat on their faces, but the program was, well, different from what everybody had come to expect over the past 46 years.

There must have been a dozen shepherds and 20 angels (a real heavenly host). And then there were the sheep – a couple dozen three, four, and five year olds who were dressed in fake sheepskin vests with woolly hoods and their dad’s socks, which were pulled up over their arms and legs.

Now, in your suburban Christmas pageants, I imagine sheep are well-behaved and fairly quiet. The only sheep suburban kids have ever seen are on the church-bulletin cover – quiet, grazing sheep who just stand there and look cute. But half of the kids in this church live on farms and they’ve seen real sheep. They know sheep wander around. They know that all sheep want to do is eat.

So, some of the sheep started doing an imitation of grazing behind the communion table. Some went to graze over by the choir and down the aisle. Some had donuts they found in the church parlor to make their grazing look more realistic. When the shepherds tried to herd them with their shepherds’ crooks, some of the sheep spooked and scattered, which is exactly what real sheep do.

Doris was watching all this from the last pew, and I could just see her from where I was sitting. She noticed me looking at her and lowered her head to hide a smirk.

The real climax of imprecision came, however, at the point of high drama when Mary and Joseph enter, Mary clutching a doll wrapped in a blue blanket. This year’s Mary, whose name was actually Mary, was taking the role with an intense and pious seriousness. Joseph was another story. He had gotten the part because he had been rejected from pageant participation by Doris more times than any other youngster in the church (and for good reason, some might say).

Anyway, Mary and Joseph were to walk on as the narrator read, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem… to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.”

At least this is what the narrator was supposed to read. It was what the narrator had read at the rehearsal. But one of the young mothers had observed that none of the children could really understand the English of the King James Bible, so they voted to switch to the Good News translation for the performance.

So, as Mary and Joseph entered, the narrator read, “Joseph went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant.” As the last word echoed through the P.A. system, our little Joseph froze in his tracks, gave Mary an incredulous look, then looked out at the congregation. “Pregnant? What do you mean, pregnant?” he asked.

This, of course, brought the house down. My wife, wiping tears from her eyes, leaned over to me and said, “You know, that may well be what Joseph actually said.”

Doris was now wearing a look that simply said, “I told you so.” But as the pageant wound into its concluding tableaux and the church lights were dimmed for the singing of Silent Night, a couple of magical, I would allow, miraculous things happened.

The sheep, when they were finished with their parts, bleated their way down a side aisle to sit in the last couple of pews and watch the end of the show. Doris suddenly found herself surrounded by a little herd. Then the church went dark, and we could all see what had been happening outside for the last hour. The first snow of winter was falling. Big, fat snowflakes floated down, covering everything with a white blanket. From both children and grown-ups, there was a group “Ahhh!”

We sang, “Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright.” Our voices were soft, and all the sheep were quiet, even the ones who were awake. Everybody looked at the snow. When the last verse of the carol finally died away, no one stirred for a long time. It wasn’t planned. We all just sat there and watched.

Then Minnie McDonnell broke the spell. She’s hard of hearing and always talks too loudly. She probably meant to whisper to her husband, but everybody heard. “Perfect,” she said. “Just perfect.”

And it was. It wasn’t perfect in the way Doris had tried to make her pageants perfect; it was perfect in the way God makes things perfect, the way He accepts our fumbling attempts at love and fairness and covers them with grace. Have a Merry Christmas, my friend.

Glory On

Glory On

This morning’s Christmas story is Glory On – An Angel’s Story, by Dr. Ralph Wilson

Glory On – An Angel’s Story

Main Hall at Angel Academy was rustling with thousands of young wings as students waited for the guest speaker who would bring the Christmastide Lecture. It was always a well-known Academy alum. The headmaster delivered a flowery introduction, praising the speaker for his service at Bethlehem and standing guard at the Empty Tomb. On and on he went. Finally, he motioned to the speaker. Nervously, the angel cleared his throat and then began.

Thank you, headmaster, for that gracious introduction. But really! All the glory should go to our God, not to his servants! Nevertheless, young angels, I have a great story to tell about His glory. I know you’ve all studied about it in your classes, but I want you to hear it from an eyewitness. I was there.

It began when I was a junior, away from the Academy on an internship with a Mentor Angel. Suddenly, my Mentor was summoned to travel by swift flight to a dark hillside just a mile south of Bethlehem, and I went along. The hillside was still, except for a few sheep moving about on the ground below us. Some shepherds were talking quietly. But when we got there, we all waited in the darkness, “glory off.” Someone was giving instructions. “Arrange yourselves in ranks of hundreds, shortest in front, tallest in the rear. And quietly! You don’t want to mess up what God has planned for the occasion.” Now Gabriel was brought out. Even in those days, he was famous because of his work with Daniel many centuries before. And then it began.

Gabriel went from “glory off” to “full glory” in a split second. The effect was stunning! He stood at full height, shining in all the Father’s glory — and the poor shepherds looked like they had been struck down. The official account read: “The glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” Young angels, that’s an understatement. Those shepherds thought the end of the world had come! It took Gabriel several minutes to calm them down. You know, humans have an iris in their eyes that gets large in the dark. But when a bright light suddenly comes on, it can actually cause them pain. I think that’s what happened. We were all standing silently in the ranks, “glory off” for the moment, when Gabriel began to speak: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

At first, I really didn’t know what was going on. But then I realized what all the hubbub in heaven these last few weeks had been about. God’s Son was coming to earth. And not in all his regal splendor, but as a tiny human Child. My dear angels, he went through all the compression and rigors and indignity of human birth. God’s Son, mind you! And the manger part … you really need to understand! You’d expect God’s Son to come to the palace of a king. But, no, in all the Father’s wisdom, His Son was born as the humblest of the humble, not even in a house, but in a stable. You don’t find mangers in king’s houses; only in barns. I could see that the shepherds were puzzled too. But now it was our time. The conductor tapped his baton on a rock to get our attention, lifted his arms, and at the downstroke, tens of thousands of us went “full glory” all at once.

Instantly, the hillside was flooded with brilliance like thousands of arc lights. The hills rang as we sang at the top of our voices: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The words were simple, but the song went on for several minutes, the lines repeating as the melody carried the wonderful words of praise. Like a waterfall, it began high up. The sopranos would trill their lines, then the altos would join in. The tenors would pick it up, finally down to the great bass angel voices of heaven — all in glorious harmony.

Heaven and Angels Sing

Heaven and Angels Sing

This morning’s Fireside Christmas story is Heaven & Angels Sing, by Carol Stigger

Heaven and Angels Sing

At the Christmas Eve church service, I sat with my two boisterous grandchildren, ages three and five. Their parents sat in front of the church to present a nativity reading titled “Silent Night.” They had warned the children to behave. I had warned the children to behave. With scrubbed angelic faces and Christmas wonder in their eyes, they looked like model children posing for a magazine holiday spread. I indulged myself in a few moments of pride.

Alec pinched Aubrey. I was grateful that the organ thundered into the first hymn just then, drowning out her yelp. I grabbed her hand before she could return the pinch. During the Lord’s Prayer, Aubrey shredded the program I had given her to color on. The crayons had already rolled under the pew. I watched bits of paper fall on the carpet like snow. I would help her pick it up later, but for now the naughtiness I was allowing kept her occupied and her brother quietly admiring.

We were enjoying an uneasy truce when their parents stood to deliver the reading.

“Mommy!” Alec yelled.

She frowned, and he sat back in his seat.

“Silence,” my son said to the congregation. “Think for a moment what that word means to you.”

My daughter-in-law signed his words. Earlier that year, she began to use her new signing skills for the benefit of the few hearing-impaired members of our church.

Alec said a naughty word, thankfully too low for many to hear. I scowled at him, shaking my finger and my head. Aubrey grinned. Then she proclaimed, every syllable enunciated perfectly, in a clear voice that carried to far corners of the sanctuary, “Alec is a potty mouth!”

Everyone stared. I was too stunned to speak. My son and his wife looked at each other. But instead of anger, I saw surprise.

My son set aside his script and told another story. He told about their daughter being born profoundly deaf. He talked about four years of hearing aids and speech therapy with no guarantee she would ever learn to speak plainly. He talked about the rugged faith that kept the family praying she would have a normal life.

He said Aubrey’s outburst was an answer to prayer: the first perfectly enunciated sentence she had ever spoken.

From the back of the room, a lone voice sang the last line of a beloved Christmas Carol: Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king.

While the congregation sang four verses of the unscheduled hymn, my two little angels wiggled in their parents’ arms, adding laughter and giggles to the joyful Christmas noise.

The Alchemy of Christmas Cookies

The Alchemy of Christmas Cookies

This morning’s Fireside Christmas story is The Alchemy of Christmas Cookies.

 

the alchemy of christmas cookies

The ladies of st. barbara’s catholic church of vulcan, michigan put out a cookbook each year.

i’ve always loved the thing. the book, with notes from my mother actually lived through a tornado which took mom home. when i found in in the rubble, i swear i heard the voice of my mother say, “this is how you will keep us alive. set the table. cook the food and when you do, tell you children the story of who we were.”

it’s a true story, but it’s not a story for today.

suffice to say, they recipes are sturdy stock, made of things like “oleo and eagle brand”

be 5 recipes for “hot dish”

you’d get one from the pollocks, like the opolkas

one from the swedes and finn, who always want to coat things with catsup and bake it,

the italians, like the spinetti’s and vacellios  who’s recipe we be just like the pollocks, but always seemed to taste better.

they must have had a secret.

recipes for things snacks gone for generations now-like “chow chow” and kanadele.

it was “make due with what ya got, kind food”

from miners and immigrants .

in this hole-punched treasure is the recipe or angel candy from jean vecellio.

aaron vecellio was in my class.

he was tall and pimply and his parents own the furniture store on 14.

this is his grandma’s recipe:

1 1/2 sugar

1/4 corn syrup

3 t baking soda

1/4c  hot instant coffee

cook till 310 degrees. pour on sheet. cool. break. may be dropped in melted chocolate (which it always was)

there is real magic in the process, the ritual of the christmas cookie. it brings out the best in us.

something about the crisco seems to smooth things over.

when the ladies and their familys bring the confections in tins to the church for the swap-the sugar in the air softens the blow of hurts from the year passing. the time your kid did this or that to mine, or your husband gave my husband the business at work.

it crumbles like-well-like cookies.

everyone has their favorite. mine’s the truffle. it’s not in the st. baraba’s cook book. the recipe is one i found online and it’s prefect and simple.

dark chocolate pieces

cocoa powder

cream.

done.

my hubby and kids love the peanut butter ones with the kisses and joseph (although he forgets until their on the table) is 100% partial to the russian tea cake.

my great grandma k was a diabetic. a diagnosis which she rebuked and ignored.

bon bons were her favorite.

she kept a stash of them on the breeze way of my grandmas house.

she must have trusted me, becasue i saw her pull the tin and scraf a few several times a day at christmas time.

the aunt’s would talk about the skandle in the kitchen over bubbling pasta sauce.

i didn’t like them much. thought they were to sweet, still each year i roll them up.

i could make them in my sleep. they’re in my blood, i think. funny how that happens. but it doesn’t just happen. that’s why each year i call my kids to the kitchen when it’s time to make “grandma’s bon bons.”

funny too, how someday-i will be the “grandma” behind the bons bons.

life is to short to hold a grudge-or even a secret recipe.

i’ll let you in on a little secret.

i’m sure it’s okay.

 

it’s amazing how flavors are caught in time.

they way they suspend like baked meringues.

there’s something about it the binds us together.

merry christmas!

.

Trouble at the Inn

Trouble at the Inn

troubleinn

This morning’s Fireside Christmas story first appeared in 1966 in Guideposts Magazine. Written by Dina Donohue, it’s titled Trouble at the Inn.

 

For years now, whenever Christmas pageants are talked about in a certain little town in the Midwest, someone is sure to mention the name of Wallace Purling.

Wally’s performance in one annual production of the Nativity play has slipped into the realm of legend. But the old-timers who were in the audience that night never tire of recalling exactly what happened.

Wally was nine that year and in the second grade, though he should have been in the fourth. Most people in town knew that he had difficulty keeping up. He was big and awkward, slow in movement and mind.

Still, Wally was well liked by the other children in his class, all of whom were smaller than he, though the boys had trouble hiding their irritation when Wally would ask to play ball with them or any game, for that matter, in which winning was important.

They’d find a way to keep him out, but Wally would hang around anyway—not sulking, just hoping. He was a helpful boy, always willing and smiling, and the protector, paradoxically, of the underdog. If the older boys chased the younger ones away, it would be Wally who’d say, “Can’t they stay? They’re no bother.”

Wally fancied the idea of being a shepherd in the Christmas pageant, but the play’s director, Miss Lumbard, assigned him a more important role. After all, she reasoned, the innkeeper did not have too many lines, and Wally’s size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful.

And so it happened that the usual large, partisan audience gathered for the town’s yearly extravaganza of crooks and creches, of beards, crowns, halos and a whole stageful of squeaky voices.

No one on stage or off was more caught up in the magic of the night than Wallace Purling. They said later that he stood in the wings and watched the performance with such fascination that Miss Lumbard had to make sure he didn’t wander onstage before his cue.

Then the time came when Joseph appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door set into the painted backdrop. Wally the innkeeper was there, waiting.

“What do you want?” Wally said, swinging the door open with a brusque gesture.

“We seek lodging.”

“Seek it elsewhere.” Wally spoke vigorously. “The inn is filled.”

“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”

“There is no room in this inn for you.” Wally looked properly stern.

“Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”

Now, for the first time, the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. With that, there was a long pause, long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment.

“No! Begone!” the prompter whispered.

“No!” Wally repeated automatically. “Begone!”

Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary and Mary laid her head upon her husband’s shoulder and the two of them started to move away. The innkeeper did not return inside his inn, however. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling unmistakably with tears.

And suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all others.

“Don’t go, Joseph,” Wally called out. “Bring Mary back.” And Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room.”

Some people in town thought that the pageant had been ruined. Yet there were others—many, many others—who considered it the most Christmas of all Christmas pageants they had ever seen.