If you’ve ever had a child, or indeed ever been a child, chances are you’ve been exposed to some form of Christmas pageantry, whether it’s at your church (as it was at mine), your school (as it was at mine) or at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (they had live elephants on stage which as a child I found enchanting, whereas now I just consider it exploitation – Merry Christmas!).
I have had more than my recommended lifetime exposure.
I attended an all-girls Catholic private school from the ages of 11-17, and while I have nothing negative to say about the curriculum and the overall experience, the fact that it was an arts-focused school did tend to create some uncomfortable situations quite literally in the spotlight. The entire student body was expected to participate in annual choral festivities and musical theatre, either on stage or operating lighting, painting scenery or sewing costumes. With an average cast of 220 girls, scenes contained so many extras that during one memorable run of The Wizard of Oz we technically outnumbered the dwarves in the film version of Munchkin Land 4 to 1.
A yearly yet rather insufferable tradition at the school – and indeed in Catholic institutions everywhere – was the live nativity scene. This is the part of any Catholic mass or performance when the only people interested in what’s going on are the parents of the participants. Students were dressed as the usual nativity figures and someone’s newborn baby brother or sister was cast as the infant Jesus. One of my sister’s friends, whom I adored for her abiding love of Cornholio and uncanny impressions of same, was cast as an angel and managed to make an early exit by fainting while trying to remain perfectly still and in character during a choral performance. It was one of the most exciting things to ever happen at a chorus event. If presented with the terrible “fell from heaven” pick-up line, she can accurately answer “not quite from heaven, but approximately four feet and beside a bewildered infant who may have been cross-dressing.” Also, it gave us a much-needed break from the tense stuff that was waiting for baby Jesus to start crying inconsolably because the 12 year old pretending to be his mother did not in fact give birth to him (as far as anyone knew).
I once portrayed an angel in a nativity play, as evidenced by otherwise bewildering photographs of me as a young girl with tinsel on my head. My excitement at being cast as an angel was eclipsed only by my excitement at being cast as Lúcia Santos in the story of Fátima, and I may have been involved with a passion play as well. My memory of that is somewhat hazy, possibly because casting a group of children to reenact torture and a crucifixion likely caused our tiny brains to employ selective amnesia as a coping mechanism.
But returning to high school, picture, if you will, over 200 girls staged on risers, all dressed in floor-length black skirts and button-down white blouses. (Except for the 7th and 8th graders, who had to wear empire-waist, white polyester gowns with biting elastic at the cuffs, for reasons unknown apart from giving people another reason to laugh at awkward junior high schoolers.) There was an elite chorus comprised of those of us noted either for particular vocal talent or for marked lack of interest or aptitude in anything athletic. We were distinguished from the rest by cummerbunds, which my own mother had to sew for every girl. They were green and red tartan and even a profoundly alcoholic Scotsman suffering from some sort of brain damage would have refused to wear them in a darkened room. My mother’s craftsmanship was of course impeccable, but to this day I will never understand the practical or aesthetic purpose of a cummerbund.
Since I remain a Catholic and am now a mom, the likelihood of encountering a Christmas pageant of some sort remains at a steady orange on the Christmas Pageant Threat Advisory Scale. But if my son is ever cast as Joseph (but I can only hope that as in Love Actually, he’s cast to play the first lobster), you can be sure I’ll be riveted by every moment, just as my family was when I was on stage.
It’s the circle of life, really.