Few traditions are more pervasive, unpredictable or unintentionally funny as the annual Christmas pageant. Many kids have been traumatized by stage fright, and even more parents have been mortified by their kids’ performances. It’s guaranteed to generate a lifetime of memorable moments….not all of them painful.
Growing up in a musical family, it was pretty much expected that we’d be signing in front of church multiple times a year, and especially at Christmas time. While holiday music may have held a bit more interest to me, I was always frustrated why I couldn’t sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, or “Frosty the Snowman” at church. I had to settle for lesser thrills, like on the off-chance that they sang “Jingle Bells” on Christmas Sunday, I might be able to sneak in the “Batman smells” lyrics.
Every so often, the service would attempt a ‘dramatic’ re-creation of the Christmas story, with kids playing the parts. Everybody would try to maneuver into the parts of Joseph or Mary, since those got prime stage time. The second-tier parts went to the angels, but most of us had to settle for being shepherds. We were OK with that, as long as we didn’t get stuck playing a cow, camel or donkey – especially, since some years, those parts were played by cardboard cutouts.
Baby Jesus was usually played by a plastic doll that some girl parted with temporarily for the good of the show, but occasionally, they’d attempt it with a real baby, with predictably unpredicable results. Each time they tried, it reinforced the resolve to never try that again….until enough of the congregation changed over to have someone else think it might be a good idea.
The most frequent version of the pageant would trot out each Sunday School class of different ages, starting with the toddlers, who would kinda sorta think about singing along with the adult teachers who would attempt to cue the next line of the (mercifully short) Christmas song, usually featuring at least one solo performance of a screaming toddler who was way past his nap time, a girl who would use her Christmas dress as a semaphore flag, or another kid who would stomp about the stage, doing their best tap-dance routine way before Michael Flatley ever thought of “Riverdance.”
As the classes went up in age, the performances would get slightly more sophisticated (if only slightly). The pre-schoolers could usually get through their short song without incident, but you could count on at least one kid running off-stage to their parent, or another loudly declaring that they had to pee.
By the time the third graders got on stage, they were expected to deliver a quality performance. Even though I’d been doing it for as long as I could remember, it was still good for an incident or two. The third graders would usually line up at the end of the stage, and get trotted on, one at a time to read a Bible verse, or say their ‘piece’.
At each holiday pageant, saying your ‘piece’ was a big deal. Some parent would write up witty sayings related to the holiday, whether it was Christmas, Thanksgiving or some lesser holiday. One Mothers’ Day, a kid went up and started into his lines about being helpful to his Mom. He said, “I have two hands to help my Mommy. I have five fingers to pick up my toys, and ten fingers to..OOH IT SHOCKED ME!” as he leaned too close to the microphone. He sprinted off stage as we all looked at the teacher, who was trying to intercept the kid.
Christmas was the big time, though. The lines were longer, the Bible verses more complex, and the pressure to perform was greater. We all sat bolt upright in the pew, squirming in our clip-on bow ties and little suits, waiting for our turn on stage. Some kids were immune to pressure and nodded off until they got elbowed by a neighbor or had their ear pulled by a nearby adult, while most of us fidgeted nervously, hoping we wouldn’t screw things up.
Some times the pressure got to be too great, with a kid sprinting for the bathroom, or retreating to their parents’ lap before our cue to line up on stage. Others tried to keep their nervousness hidden, with mixed success. One Christmas, I was sitting in the pew with my fellow inmates/classmates, when I noticed my cousin swaying to and fro.
At first, I thought he was going to nod off, but with his pallid complexion, it looked like he was either very nervous…or about to be very sick. I tried to focus on the program and see how much longer we had to hold out. I glanced over, and he was looking even more pale than before. I looked around for an adult to intervene as he bobbed and weaved better than Joe Frazier (even if the opponent wasn’t a fighter, but a nervous stomach).
Before I could catch an adult’s attention, I heard an unworldly “YAAAALLLLLP” sound, folowed by an even louder “SPLATTTT!” onto the linoleum tile floor. My cousin had lost his battle trying to hold down breakfast, and now, a wave of Sugar Smacks and bile was rolling down the floor towards me.
Panic ensued. Kids jumped onto the pew to avoid the yellow tide avancing down the row, and parents reached over the seats to grab their kids and hoist them out of harms’ way. I scooted all the way down the pew with my feat on the seat to avoid the flood, as well as put a safe distance between me and my cousin, who had lost any semblance of dignity at this point.
The service came to a halt while parents moved their children away from ground zero, the custodian came back with a broom, mop and some pink sawdust to clean up the destruction. My cousin’s Mom propped him up to walk back to the restroom for a clean-up attempt as he staggered out of the sanctuary.
Fortunately, by fourth grade, we were no longer forced into pageant duty as a class. I still had to do the requisite musical number with my siblings, but by that age, I was a jaded entertainment professional, and not much could faze me. Still, every year, there’s a new batch of kids that gets trotted out on the stage for their parents’ entertainment (or mortification).
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