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Best Christmas pageants, ever | Editorial
‘Tis the season for Christmas pageants, those wonderfully awkward times in the holiday season when children are caroused onto intimidatingly high stages in oversized costumes and recite their memorized lines in a high-pitched voice as quickly as possible before they forget what they are supposed to say.
Meanwhile, parents crowd the gym, church or vicinity with cameras and video recorders like paparazzi, eager to get their child’s 15 seconds of fame on film to use retroactively as black mail when the child is an adult yet still foolish enough to bring their date home.
Or at least that’s what I observed many times when I was a kid.
I had what you would refer to as a “special” or “unique” childhood when it came to Christmas programs. My mother was, and continues to be, the music teacher at Eastside Christian School in Bellevue, where I attended preschool, elementary and middle school (insert jokes about private schoolers). She also directs the Christmas programs, including all of mine from kindergarten up through fifth grade.
At the same time, a close family friend, whose kids went to my school, directed the Christmas program at our church. In fact, there was an entire gaggle of kids who went to ECS and the same church, known idiosyncratically as the SAFARI gang (it does actually stand for something).
This situation caused some dilemmas.
One, having your mother as a teacher always makes the interactions strange. Do kids refer to their mothers in a formal setting as “Mom,” or “Mrs.?” (answer: depends on what mood they’re in. Tone is also important).
It got even more confusing when I referred to the adult family friend during one of the rehearsals at church as “Mrs.,” only to be corrected for my apparently superfluous formality.
For those of you who may have never experienced all the fun and fancy free excitement of participating in a Christmas program, it inevitably involves a copious amount of three things: singing, hand motions, and unexpected near-disasters.
It was hard enough for a kid to memorize the lyrics to a list of songs for one program. But kids like me, as well as my brothers and the rest of the SAFARI kids, had to memorize the lyrics for two different programs.
Often, my mom and our family friend would swap programs from season to season to avoid unnecessary headaches of finding a new one.
It was like some sort of convoluted algorithm. The church program would have the same instrumental songs as last year’s school program, but with slightly different lyrics. Or they would have the same hand motions, but for separate songs. Or, the school would reuse a program from the church, but have a few parts rewritten to suit the time length or for “artistic purposes.”
As for the third aspect, well, this is where Murphy’s Law takes effect.
Every year some sort of mini-disaster or potential catastrophe would occur. One of the kids playing a lead role would get the flu. Another kid would lose his script. A costume that took hours of painstaking work to make would tear.
Or a quasi-revolt among the “little people,” i.e. those who had no speaking role whatsoever, would petition the director for a redress of grievances.
Considering that many of these rehearsals were held on Saturdays or after school, the only time we kids fully had to ourselves, this only made matters worse. When you have 7-year-old kids on a stage or bleachers while a certain scene is rehearsed multiple times, it’s only natural their fidgeting grows into outright anxiety and impatience.
Anyone who has tried to organize a group of kids surrounded on all sides by their friends and get them to be quiet for five minutes knows what I’m talking about.
Admittedly, I participated in several of these aforementioned revolts like a mini-Samuel Adams. But we easily agreed to a cease fire at the offer of hot chocolate (with whipped cream, no less!) and dessert after rehearsals, which was perpetually “in just five minutes.”
For some, the evening of a Christmas program would be among the more nerve-racking nights in their childhood. We would arrive at either the church or the school an hour or so before the parents. Like actors and actresses setting up before a play, we would gather into some room, throwing on our costumes as we did one final ad hoc rehearsal while watching “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” praying ours would be more successful. The tension would mount as the parents arrived in droves, swelling into the chapel or gym.
Even though the pressure would be greatest on those with the lead parts, it is an inherent aspect of every Christmas program that each child feels as though the weight of the whole world has come down on their shoulders.
An instinctive fear overtakes them, convincing them that if they don’t correctly sing each syllable of every song, correctly perform each gesture of every hand motion and recite every line of dialogue with perfection, it will be seen by the entire audience and ruin the program completely, bringing humiliation and disgrace down upon themselves and their family name.
With these sobering thoughts lingering in our minds, we would march out of the rooms and head for the gym or chapel. Sometimes, it felt like we were marching into a battle. Those who screwed up would be the casualties.
On stage, we would be subject to two hundred thousand cameras flashes and three hundred red laser dots of video recorders, in addition to the bright stage lights.
Maybe I wear contacts now for a specific reason…
As the programs would progress, however, we learned, much to our surprise, the audience didn’t quite spot mistakes like we did. And even when they noticed, it was always given a good lighthearted laugh.
One year, a family friend blurted out a line my brother, a shepherd, was supposed to say - his only line - only to exclaim immediately afterwards, “Oops! That’s Dan’s part!”
Then there is the line recital.
If there is a Guiness World Record for the fastest reading of the Nativity Story as told by Saint Matthew, I grew up with the kid who holds it.
Technically, in a phonetic sense, he always quoted Saint Matthew correctly. But no one could ever understand him; underneath the dam of taut smiles were floodwaters of suppressed laughter.
Nevertheless, like a race, all the pain and hardship endured was well worth the finale. Every kid felt like a Hollywood star at the end.
After the program had concluded, there would always be a buffet table full of every single kind of dessert imaginable - M&M cookies, brownies, Christmas decorated cookies, peppermint white chocolates and whatever else that brings kids joy and dentists business.
Stuffing ourselves full of yuletide sweets, we would sit back and relish in the fact that we had, without question, performed the best Christmas pageant we had ever done that year at that particular location.