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.
This morning’s Christmas story is Glory On – An Angel’s Story, by Dr. Ralph Wilson
Heaven and Angels Sing
This morning’s Fireside Christmas story is Heaven & Angels Sing, by Carol Stigger
The Alchemy of Christmas Cookies
This morning’s Fireside Christmas story is The Alchemy of Christmas Cookies.
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
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.
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.
Whispers From Heaven
This morning’s Fireside Christmas story is excerpted from the book Whispers From Heaven, by Dayle Shockley.
Listen as Peter shares “Whispers From Heaven.”