The seven-year gift

Said good-bye to an old friend last Thursday night, a steadfast and loyal friend I’ve had available to lift my spirits every holiday season for the past eight of them. It was the annual Christmas Pageant at my sons’ school. Matthew finished his last performance for this season, and will age out when he moves up to fifth grade next year.

Fourth grade was the highest grade in the school for nearly fifty years, so the tradition is that only first- through fourth-graders have a role. Kindergarteners get to watch and anticipate. That’s what Matthew did four years ago, when Christopher was a fourth-grader and getting ready to age out himself. I think that’s when Matthew’s obsession with the wise men started. Even before kindergarten, he loved We Three Kings, and would sing his toddler’s take on the lyrics: “We three kings of oriental. Barren gifts, we travel so far.” My favorite part was the first king: “Bored a king on Bethlehem Day….”

In the School Pageant, those solos (albeit with the proper lyrics) and others (Joseph, Mary, and Gabriel) go to fourth-graders who pass an audition. Other fourth-graders get to read the Gospel interludes; play tone chimes, bells, or triangles; sing in a special small choir; carry torches, the processional cross, the Bible, or the flags; or play the Star. Third-graders are the main choir, singing the bulk of the songs. Second-graders play “little children” (more about that in a bit). First-grade boys play shepherds, and first-grade girls play angels.

Thus has it ever been (more precisely, thus has it been for all 57 years), and thus is it 99 percent likely to ever be. As the rector says when introducing the Pageant, it’s the same Pageant they’ve been performing every year (although to be honest, there have been two small changes that I know of). Even his intro is mostly unchanged; every year, at the Wednesday dress rehearsal and Thursday’s two performances (for most years, anyway), he stands up and says something along the lines of, “We’re proud to present this year’s Christmas Pageant; the children have been working hard since November to make this an extra-special pageant.” (Every year, it’s extra-special; I’ve never seen an ordinary one. “Extra-special” has become the norm, and for that, I’m glad.)

Then he continues, “This is your children’s gift to you. It is also considered a worship service, so we ask that you refrain from the use of all electronic devices, including cameras. You’ll have a chance to take photos afterward, and we will make a professional recording of the Pageant.” (I guess it’s okay for professionals to sin during our services.)

It truly is a gift to us; it’s one of the most uplifting, joyous occasions I know. That’s why I’m going to miss it. I went to both of this year’s performances, as well as the dress rehearsal. But how could I not? Matthew overcame a bad cold at audition time, realized his four-year dream of playing one of the kings, and continued to fight off laryngitis to nail his solos; no parent could have missed such a thing. So my final gift was a doozie.

It’s an experience I recommend to everyone, regardless of their beliefs. The children’s joy is contagious. It’s just too bad they usually perform it to a packed church, and the audience has to be limited to two parents per child – approximately 400 people, give or take a few. But this year, they had a simulcast in the dining hall, plus a live web stream, so others could watch. (Guess that makes three small changes in 57 years.)

Regardless, it’s a moving experience for anyone watching. After the rector’s introduction, a group of fourth-graders in black cassocks and white cottas solemnly and silently enter the chancel from side doors, process to the stairs leading down to the nave, and play a beautiful version of “Silent Night” on tone chimes. It used to be instrumental, but they added vocals this year – more fourth-graders in a sort of mini-choir, singing both traditional and alternate lyrics to the song. At one point, that choir is split into two groups, simultaneously singing different parts of the song in what I believe is called a polyphony. Whatever it’s called, it sounds fantastic.

For a moment after it’s done, the night really is silent while the kids exit as solemnly as they entered, then the huge pipe organ blares out the opening chords of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” At the front of the nave, to the left of the chancel, the door to a hallway is flung open, and the opening procession begins in song. Fourth graders pour in, carrying the processional cross, the torches, the Bible, and a host of flags. Every one of them is singing at the top of his/her lungs as they process down the left aisle. Behind them come the tone chime players and mini-choir, followed by the third-grade full choir in red cassocks and white cottas. About the time the first red robe appears at the front of the nave, the crucifer and other black-clad fourth-grade acolytes start up the center aisle, having processed into the narthex and reversed direction. Once they reach the front of the nave, they turn right and right again, and continue their procession down the right aisle.

By this time, the volume is rising, and the red-clad third-graders are still processing in through the left door up front. The procession continues to wind through the nave and the narthex, with the fourth-graders coming up the center aisle again. Meanwhile, the third-graders start up the stairs from the narthex to the choir loft, where their voices continue to fill the church with volume and joy. Once the entire third-grade choir is seated in the loft, they’re packed wall-to-wall up there, and it sounds like their only way to make more space is to blow the walls open with song. Then the fourth-graders reach the chancel and the front pews, and the song finishes. The faithful have come; the fideles have adested.

Once the echoes die down, a fourth-grader steps up into the pulpit to give the first reading, from Isaiah 9:2 and 9:6, I think. Allowing for different versions of the Bible, sloppy note-taking, and sloppier memory, I’ll paraphrase it here: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”

The third-grade choir then sings “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as Mary and Gabriel enter the chancel from the sacristy to the right – Mary in simple garb and barefoot, and Gabriel (always played by a girl) resplendent in huge, feathery wings.

Mary sits in front of the altar and Gabriel stands just behind her as the next reader takes a deep breath for a lot of words from Luke 1:26-28 – “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said…”

At this point, they go a little artistic, and have Gabriel deliver the line, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” The reading continues with Mary expressing her doubt and Gabriel reassuring her that the Holy Spirit will get it done, and that of her son’s kingdom, there will be no end. It’s kind of a neat lesson, with the reader stopping to let Mary and Gabriel deliver their own lines. This is the only lesson in which any character has spoken dialogue in our Pageant.

Then Gabriel faces the toughest job of the night – singing the first solo. She sets the tone, as no one has proven to her that it’s possible to sing to 400 people without dying; nope, she has to prove it to all of the other soloists, so she screws up her courage and belts out, “From Heaven High.” You can almost feel the collective sigh of relief from the remaining soloists, even though they’re still nervous. And Gabriel’s relief is palpable.

The next reader presents passages from Luke 2:1 and 2:3-5 – “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…And Joseph 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.”

Gabriel and Mary exit into the sacristy, and some of the fourth-graders rush to the altar to set up two-dimensional cut-outs of a mule, a cow, and a sheep, while the third-grade choir sings, “Once in Royal David’s City.” The animals have been there all along, leaning with their backs against the railing around the altar, yet somehow this is the first time the audience notices them.

The next reading is from Luke 2:6-7 – “And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Joseph and Mary enter from the sacristy with a baby doll, which they place lovingly in the manger. The third-grade choir sings, “Away in a Manger” and Joseph and Mary alternate solos in, “Joseph, Dearest” while the choir sings the refrain.

Next comes Luke 2:8-14, or as I like to think of it, the Linus passage: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Now is when the Pageant ramps up the cuteness factor by about 100 percent, as the heavenly host enters from the narthex, and every head turns to see. It’s the first-grade girls in white dresses, white tights, and white shoes, with white wings and silver halos, and it’s adorable. They glide up the center aisle two-by-two, eventually coming to rest on the chancel stairs. It’s impossible not to smile as they walk by to the choir’s rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” accompanied by the sound of bells being shaken in time by the fourth-graders. It’s one of the many sweet moments of our Pageant, and as tough as it is not to smile, it’s even tougher not to cry.

Luke 2:15 gives everyone a chance to dab their eyes, with a chuckle coming fast on the reading’s heels: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, ‘Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.’” A playful organ intro precedes the choir singing, “Shepherds Come A-Running” – and run they do. Two by two, the first-grade boys scurry up the aisle from the narthex to the chancel, stopping just in front of the angels, with the last two – the two shortest boys in the grade – getting the honor of carrying stuffed lambs and placing them gently at their feet (although occasionally one will forget, and will simply drop the lamb once he realizes he should no longer be holding it). You know all of the boys love this part, because it’s bound to be the only time a teacher has instructed them to run in Chapel.

The JCP specialThis segment also marks the last change that I’m aware of. The shepherds used to wear their own outfits, as prescribed by the school – a simple cotton bathrobe with a safety-pinned bath towel for a headpiece. It was always comical to see the cacophony of plaid from whatever JCPenney had in its fall offerings each year, but two years ago, two generous first-grade moms sewed matching tan linen robes and headpieces for the entire grade. The next year, there were more first-graders than the previous year, so a dad stepped up to sew the additional brown robes and headpieces. The tan and brown robes are a definite improvement, but I have to admit the anarchist in me also loved the gaudy sale items from Penney. There’s a goofy element to the song, and the goofy costumes complemented it. But we’ll take any help we can get, so in with the new robes, and let the goofy trot up the aisle be the complement to the tune.

The next reading, from Luke 2:16, is a perfect follow-up to the shepherds’ run: “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” Now the first-graders get to sing, as the shepherds and angels combine for “The Friendly Beasts.”

He brought the heck out of that frankincense.Next come the kings – the part Matthew always wanted, and got. The reading is even from the Gospel for which he was named, Matthew 2:1-2 – “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.’”

This version of “We Three Kings” has a sort of whimsical, to-and-fro organ intro, which is also the interlude between each verse. It starts out, and the star enters the center aisle. No, that’s not me being cocky about Matthew; no one kid was a star, but one played THE star – a fourth-grader dressed all in black, holding a big, golden, glittery star overhead, mounted on a long black pole. The star walks about five pews into the nave, then stops. At last Thursday night’s performance, we were sitting in the fifth pew, so this year’s star stopped right next to us, and we got a close view of the ENORMOUS grin on her face – I swear, no other child could possibly have been that happy to be playing their role that night, and her happiness was infectious. She stood and grinned while the kings began the opening verse as a trio – “We three kings of Orient are…” from the door to the narthex, then started happily up the aisle to her destination – right behind the manger, holding that star up high and bright.

Each king then steps forward to the same spot, gut-checking himself for his solo. The first one carries gold up the aisle, singing as he walks. Then there’s the musical interlude and the sung refrain, “Oh, oh, star of wonder…” while the next king steps into place. This year, it was Matthew, and he sang his heart out as he carried that frankincense up the aisle. Then the interlude and refrain, followed by the third and final king – Mr. Myrrh. Each king stops in front of the manger, kneels to present his gift, and remains there until the end, kneeling with his back to the audience – a physically difficult differentiator for the royal fourth-graders.

a_IMG_1365We then skip the readings for another two songs, and the next segment is a little different from most pageants. If you’re not familiar with our particular canon, you might wonder why there are a bunch of oddly dressed children walking up the aisle as the choir sings, “O Come, Little Children.” This is the collective role relegated to the second-graders, and they represent the children of the world. No, they weren’t mentioned in Scripture, but they’re an interesting way to handle the challenge of having an entire grade otherwise not involved in the Pageant.

Each child chooses a foreign country, and is granted leave to dress as a citizen of that country would dress. Representing a contingency of children of the world, they walk up the aisle two-by-two, and take their place on the chancel steps. I’m happy to report there was no overt racism in this year’s costume selections.

Nothing says Christmas like a boomerang....It’s always exciting to see how the children dress; we typically see kimonos, ponchos, berets, kilts, martial arts gis, furry-hooded coats, and lots of soccer jerseys. It’s all good. When Christopher was in second grade, he wanted to go as a Guatemalan child, which required a little Googling on our part. Matthew went as an Australian child. Again, all good, and all fun. The children of the world take their place, then sing, “What Shall I Give?” before the final reader steps into the pulpit.

The last segment comes from John 1:14 – “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us….” You can feel the excitement mounting as every child from every grade joins in, nearly blasting the roof off as they sing their final number, “He Is Born/Il Est Ne.” Yes, they sing it in English and French, and no, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard about 200 southern kids slaughtering the French dialect: “Eel ay nay, luh duhveen awnfawnt.” At once cringe-worthy and beautiful.

The final note rings out, and everything is silent for a split second before the rector steps forward, turns to face the congregation, and says, “I think they deserve a round of applause, don’t you?” That’s when the place just explodes with proud, happy parents, standing to show their appreciation for another great gift from their kids. There’s not a dry eye in the house at that point, but the rector somehow manages to get control again, and asks everyone to bow their heads for a brief prayer before performers and audience alike sing the recessional. I’m sure you know what it is. We get through all four verses – twice – before the final performer has exited via the narthex doors at the back. That’s a lot of joy to the world.

So there you have it. This is what I’ve been thinking about for seven years/eight seasons. This Pageant has impressed me from the first time I saw it. It tells a terrific version of a wonderful story, and I think it can be uplifting to those who believe and disbelieve that story alike. To have it told by a large group of enthusiastic kids, only intensifies the feeling of awe. I challenge anyone to watch such a Pageant and not be moved. If you want, you can join me next year – I’m sure to be watching the livestream.

Merry Christmas!

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About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at www.danbain.net; thanks!
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2 Responses to The seven-year gift

  1. Thanks you for sharing this. Christmas pageants are quite wonderful. And the kids get so much out of the experience.
    Haven’t seen on such as this in a long time ( I remember wearing the white robes and gold garland wings – My big brother was a Wise Man.)
    Love the way you told the story
    Would be nice for you to post this again next year!

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