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.