Several years ago, I was tagged to “direct” the pageant. We started rehearsing in November, making sure the kids knew all their songs and lines. They sat in their neat rows of choir room chairs, shyly singing “We Three Kings.” The littlest ones who couldn’t read had a hard time memorizing the songs.
So, after slugging through it several times, watching the little tykes trying hard not to be bored, we devised a plan for a more entertaining learning experience. We played “Wiseman musical chairs.” Turning the choir room on its head, we re-arranged all the chairs into a tight circle, backs together. Then our choir director began to play the piano.
The children knew the basics. Circle slowly and watch the chairs, flopping down as soon as the music stops. But the new trick was that they had to sing the words to the traditional carol while they marched around the chairs. We went over and over the words and they sang at the top of their lungs, circling as warily as a procrastinating suburbanite looking for a close parking space at the mall on Christmas eve. Even the littlest ones were singing loud and proud, concentrating on the game and forgetting that they were memorizing while they played. Well, the kids learned the songs. One of them even reported that she had attempted to take the lyric sheet into the bathtub with her. I think her mama drew the line on that one.
Costumes were put together by the ladies of the church. Some were borrowed from a neighborly flock in Ranburne. The props were gathered. Pop built the manger. He constructed a “for real” one, like the ones they used to make when he was a boy. He put the splintery side of the board to the outside, the smooth one to the inside, so cows wouldn’t snag their tongues on it when they ate. I suspect the real reason was so our little Mary wouldn’t snag her little hands when she reached in for her baby. The kids were all rehearsed, the costumes were all finished. The narrators were standing by. Everyone was ready for the big day.
It came as sure as Christmas. We got the kids dressed. They were excited, chattering like a flock of starlings, flitting around in the church basement, flapping long sleeves, dancing in leather sandals. There were five shepherds, six angels, a golden Gabriel, an evil King Herod, Three Kings and a Mary and Joseph. The Christ Child was played by a baby doll stand in from the church nursery. We couldn’t talk any of the new mothers into letting us borrow their babies for the role.
Six o’clock was drawing nigh. I was anxious. I’d never worked with little kids like this. Trying to remember my experiences at that age, I wondered if we were going to be able to pull this off. So many things could go wrong. The littlest shepherd was only 4. That’s awfully young to stand up in front of a bunch of folks and do anything. What if he got scared and started crying? What if the angels froze up and forgot the words to “Away in a Manger?” What if Mary and Joseph came in on the wrong cue? I was as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rockers. But I didn’t want the kids to know it.
At show time, they all lined up in neat rows, waiting to go into the sanctuary. The angel and shepherd wranglers stood at the ready, listening for the cue that would send the kids onto the stage. I looked at all the children. Their eyes were bright as berries. The angels stood at rigid attention, their white ostrich feather wings trembling with excitement. The shepherds held tight to their tall staves, trying hard not to itch their elastic cinched striped head clothes. The wisemen stood quietly, noble in their crowns and velvet. Mary and Joseph, stuck off at the other end of the sanctuary for their big entrance, waited by themselves, listening carefully for their cues.
Well, it went off without a hitch. The Narrators spoke with large, grand voices, relaying the words of Isaiah and Luke. The choir sang traditional carols that we all enjoyed. And the kids were wonderful. They moved with a dignity and grace that surprised me, all of them, even the youngest ones, made their entrances right on time. The ones that had lines spoke them slowly and clearly, not dropping a single word. They moved stage right when they were supposed to. They traveled stage left at the appropriate time. They knelt before the hand made manger right on cue, offering the child rich gifts and poor alike.
Mary and Joseph held the baby doll gently, offering it to the world for all to see. And when the children sang, they stood straight and tall. Fearless. Remembering every word, they filled that cavern of a room with the sweetest voices you can imagine. They filled the room with the spirit of Christmas, and my eyes with tears of pride.
Gentry, a Carroll County resident, writes a weekly column for the Times-Georgian.