It all started when my four year old daughter, Annie, was cast as Mary in the Nativity play at our church. I do not know if they intended to include the youngest children in the most important roles or if it was her long blond hair that made her such a natural fit for the part of Mary or if it was the only role they trusted her with as it was a non-speaking role. Regardless, when you provide the mother of Jesus for the nativity play, it is imperative you not be late.
We arrived early en masse, my son ready to play Joseph, another non-speaking part I might add, my youngest thrilled just to be invited “backstage” and Annie in a stubborn panic. She absolutely refused to even try on the costume. I offered nail polish, chocolate, anything. The people in charge came over a few times.
“Will we have a Mary?” one woman asked. I told her I was not sure and blamed stage fright, hoping for some empathy.
Five minutes later, the costume mistress approached.
“This is for her head.” She handed me a white gauzy veil with silver stars all over. I took the veil and tried to entice Annie with the glitter. No go.
Five minutes after that, she returned to tell me, “Well, if she won’t do it, you’ll have to.”
I shook my head and said, “Why don’t we find a child understudy?” The woman looked around the room. At least three girls were dressed as angels and last I checked there was not a requisite number of angels. One of them could just be Mary.
“I don’t think that’s going to work.” The woman said as she smiled and walked away.
There was no way I was going to play Mary in a children’s pageant. I couldn’t. I’m an adult. It would just be wrong. And my stage fright began to set in. Now I understood Annie. I didn’t want to get up in front of everyone either. At least she was age appropriate for a children’s nativity.
Christmas pageants and I have a long and sparkly history. I grew up being a part of two annual Christmas pageants- one at my Catholic school and one at our evangelical church. The nativities could not have been more different. Every year at school, we did the same play. If you were in second grade, you were a drummer boy and you walked in and sang, surprise, surprise, The Little Drummer Boy. The kindergarteners were the sheep. The fourth graders the shepherds. The script never changed and you knew exactly what role you would play for the eight years you were a student at Sacred Heart. Smart parents kept the costumes because they knew they would use them for younger children. Then came Mrs. Iwata who wrote a new script that somehow involved a violet in the snow. Nothing else about the show changed. But, it was quite the controversy to add some updated dialogue.
At our church, we never did the same play twice. That would be boring, which was the worst thing we could think of. The choir director wrote full scale musicals, two acts of singing and dancing and acting for the Christmas pageant. The sets were elaborate multilevel constructions of glitter and lights. One year, we did a show in which my younger brother and I played Dot and Toby, in a Wizard of Oz meets Christmas homage. There were three rapping wise guys instead of a Tin Man. At the end of the show, we realized there was no place like home… for the holidays.
Another year, I was dressed as a cabana dancer, swing dancing to “Feliz Navidad” at the front of the church. Yet another year, I twirled around with a wooden snowflake to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas.” Every year was different and new and we began the rehearsals and preparation a year in advance. Christmas had to be flashy and bright to draw people in. Then there would be a five minute sermon to tell people the true meaning of Christmas and send them on their way.
Did I mention we did this ten nights in a row? With a break on Sunday and Monday of course. Two weeks of sold out Christmas shows in our church sanctuary with laser lights, smoke machines and kabuki cannons. All to make sure people understood the real meaning of Christmas.
This is why I panicked when they asked me to be Mary this year. I do not do Christmas pageants anymore. I have put in more than my fair share of Christmas spirit. Ten times my share if you ask me. But, in the true spirit of Christmas, I was saved by a visitor.
Five minutes before our church service was to begin, a new family entered with a four year old daughter. They had been to the church once before and were just looking for the Sunday School room. I spotted my savior right away.
Bending down to be level with the daughter’s face, I asked, “Would you like to be Mary?”
The mom translated for me and the girl smiled. I happily handed over the veil and robe and that was that. Crisis averted. The little girl felt welcomed and involved and to be honest, she absolutely nailed the part. Annie sat in the pew coloring, Margot danced along from the back and Forest was perfectly imperfect on the choreography and timing. There were no laser lights, no explosions or cabana dancers. It was sweet and reminded us all of the angels message of Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men. And the saving grace of a visitor, a newcomer, arriving just in time.