Every child’s eyes focused on the altar, watching the annual Christmas pageant in rapt attention. Mary and Joseph entered, carrying Baby Jesus. The chorus of fourth and fifth grade girls sang, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” This poignant family scene was largely ignored, however, by the hundreds of boys and girls in the church. Rather, they stared, waited, wondered — what would the llamas do?
While the dedicated teachers at my children’s school always worked hard to create a beautiful pageant, that particular year one of the third grade teachers allowed two of her son’s pet llamas to make an appearance in the Nativity scene.
Visions of the two llamas scampering down the aisle of the church danced in the heads of most of the schoolchildren. Would they buck, run, spit — or worse? It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable Christmas pageants at our parish school.
But I have found that nearly every Christmas pageant I have attended has provided me with good memories. I’ve enjoyed watching these expressions of faith and creativity, even after our children had long given up their roles. Christmas pageants make the incarnation so real, so very, very human. Preparing for them is another matter.
As a parent, I have found that the weeks leading up to these events often come with their share of inconveniences. Our parish used to have two separate pageants, one put on by the school, and another at the children’s liturgy on Christmas Eve. Amid last-minute shopping and food preparation, I didn’t always have a lot of time to drive the kids to rehearsals — and getting to church early on Christmas Eve was always a challenge. Nor was it convenient to wait around in a pew while my children practiced being shepherds and angels.
Often, the roles for the pageant were assigned based on who best fit into each costume. Anyone with a plaid flannel robe could be a shepherd and our altar server robes clothed a multitude of angels. I’ve read that when St. Francis created a living Nativity in Greccio, Italy, in 1223, his hope was to re-enact the birth of Jesus so that people could see the hardships the Holy Family endured.
Almost 800 years later, my children did the same thing — sort of. Most of our struggles occurred offstage as we fitted robes, searched for drumsticks, and tried to arrive at church without looking rumpled. However, in the end, the effort was always worthwhile.
When she was in eighth grade, my daughter, Kerry, played the part of the Blessed Mother. In a shining blue robe and veil, she held tight to a baby born close enough to the date of the pageant to be cast in the role of the Christ child.
Another year, she was the star — literally. Wearing a white robe, she crawled out and hid behind the altar. When the signal came, she stood on a stool behind the altar, her face framed in a gigantic cardboard star covered in gold-foil wrapping paper.
Another year, our son, Matthew, held the role of one of the three kings, which came with a crown and cool outfit. Prior to the event he began to feel ill, but was so excited about it that he refrained from telling me until after it was over.
One Christmas season we were lucky enough to go to the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. In between the kicking Rockettes and the dancing snowmen, the show included a stunning live Nativity scene, offering the audience a chance to consider the impact of Christ’s birth and life.
Christmas pageants can exert a real draw on children, and that is part of their beauty. Kerry and Matthew wanted to go to church, to be in it, to see their peers taking part. Bishop Richard J. Malone of the diocese of Portland, Maine, has used the phrase “marinating in the juices of Catholicism” to describe our need to create a culture of Catholicism that transmits our faith. We need to let our faith permeate our life.
Setting up the crèche in our home sends the message to our family that Christmas is a religious holiday and not just a time to peruse toy catalogs. Being a part of that living Nativity helps to reinforce that.
There are some Sundays when I am leaving church and I can barely remember the Gospel reading. I have days when I go upstairs only to realize I can’t remember what I’m looking for. However, I have vivid memories of moments in church when my own children helped my faith come alive.
I experienced the Gospel as I watched small children sing off-key and wander around the stable on the altar. I have seen Christ in the face of young ones crawling on their knees and wearing felt ears as they portrayed barnyard animals.
Christmas pageants can be messy. There usually is quite a bit of cleanup when hay and live animals are involved, and outdoor Nativity pageants always seem to be held on the coldest night in December. But these events pack the church and make meaningful memories. The memories of llamas walking into church do not fade quickly — even when they are well-behaved, as ours were that year (much to the children’s disappointment). They also remind us of Christ’s humble beginnings, and of the need for humility in our own lives. It’s helpful to remember that no matter how busy we are, how rushed, how stressed, we should take the time to recall what must have been a trying time for the Holy Family as well, and look to them for help and guidance.
Christmas pageants and similar events are more than entertainment. They are a public witness of our faith that is more than 2,000 years old. And though I had many other things to do during the Christmas season, I am so glad that I took the time to break out the flannel robes, gold garland halos, and cardboard stars for my children. And I’m so glad that they, in turn, helped me to break free from the demands of the holiday season to more fully bring my faith to life. CD