Christmas is notorious for happening at the most unexpected times and places. Like the year it arrived on the doorstep of my senior class. In late spring.
I attended a tiny Christian school, sparse in tradition and somewhat lacking in student morale. But one time-honored custom was facilitating a play produced entirely by the senior class. Had it not been for my absurd enthusiasm for theater (and also for attention), I imagine that this perennial institution would have been shuffled into hiding that year. But I rallied my ambivalent classmates and sallied forth to produce a Senior Play, The Best One Ever.
I can’t quite remember how we selected our script. Perhaps I truly did insist on The Best Play Ever, and somehow that demand got garbled in the grapevine. Perhaps someone made an attempt at a joke, and none of the existing powers recognized the punch line. Perhaps (probably) the budget was small, and the options were few. In any case, that fall I found myself staring down the script of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.
This Christmas, let’s step back and consider what we are inviting the world to observe.Let the reader understand—this is a charming little play. It’s funny, sweet, and unorthodox without being offensive. “The worst kids in the world,” a clan of miscreant siblings known as The Herdmans, invade a sleepy little church and virtually take over the Christmas pageant, stealing all of the best roles from the polite, timid children and filling in the gaps of the nativity story with amusing fabrications. It’s endearing, it’s earnest, and it’s a perfect story for Christian kids who want a little edge in the story of Jesus’ birth.
The problem is that our potential cast of 36 teenagers didn’t contain a single child. We were a group of nearly adult people, submitting college applications, captaining the basketball team, and working part-time at the A&W. Nonetheless, with the exception of a handful of adult roles, most of us would audition to portray children. We’d don angel wings and pigtails and try to convince the audience that our whining was sincere (that last part may not be as farfetched as it sounds.)
Did I mention that our Unmovable Performance Date was in May? Right after we sent out graduation invitations, with summer at our heels, we’d ask people to watch us perform a show about Christmas. In the interest of justifying this absurdity, my favorite teacher and I got to work on a frame for the play, an extra-canonical narrative that would explain why this story was of immediate interest. We produced a strange but satisfactory murder mystery. The prologue would portray a ghastly homicide. A detective would arrive on the scene and detain a student for questioning. The student would remember, in flashbacks, the senior class and teachers arguing about whether the seniors should have a production, and we would act out various, somewhat truthful scenes that would explain the conflict between the play enthusiasts (me) and the apathetic/ambivalent ones (everyone else). After the prologue, we would revisit the “dress rehearsal” and perform The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Then in the epilogue, I would take the stage for a dramatic soliloquy in which I confessed to faking my own murder/death so that my class could avoid the humiliation of performing a subpar Senior Play. (Again—not too terribly far from the truth.) We would end with a choreographed dance to N’SYNC’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.” Naturally.
Looking back, I presume the hardworking, underpaid teachers planned to market this as a quirky, but still charming, production. Not me. This was going to be the stuff of theatrical legends. I was building an artistic name for myself in this endeavor. I can clearly remember descending into at least two bouts of utter hysteria over all of this, and my teachers were the essence of patience and restraint while I lost my mind. (If you’re reading this, esteemed educators—thank you. I hope my self-indulgent sobs didn’t permanently damage your hearing.)
With the script in place, we, either begrudgingly or with great gusto, got to work. We held auditions, begged our moms to postpone storing their Christmas trees until the summer, and practiced. My memories of rehearsals are virtually nonexistent, probably because I was so agonized about what I would do if a theater scout showed up and wanted to whisk me away on tour—could I manage a gap year before college?
Finally, spring came around. My friends were jittery with excitement about decorating dorms and college orientations, while I was stoked that my seven-year-old little sister agreed to let me borrow her beat up baby doll for Imogene Herdman to thrash against the manger. My big moment was imminent.
The night of the show, our parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends politely gathered in the auditorium to watch us perform. We distributed cleverly bundled programs—one for the frame, one for the Christmas play, and a final one that covered the gaps between the two. Then the house lights dimmed. Our spotlight was extremely bright, so I don’t know if our families winced or grimaced throughout the show. I remember laughter, some weak, some sincere. I remember applause at the appropriate times and whoops scattered throughout the building when we took our bows. No theater scouts arrived, but we still made some lovely memories.
One of those memories stands out even more clearly now at Christmastime. As I said, I don’t remember much about our rehearsals, but I remember the performance very clearly. I’d spent most of our practice time standing in the audience aisles, barking at my classmates about blocking and cues and line drops. But the night of the play, I was confined in our tiny backstage area. My friends were on the other side of the stage, so I was forced to be in close quarters with people I barely knew, even though we’d all been in school together forever. A few of us had sat within a few feet of each other for 13 years, and yet we hardly ever spoke to one another. Someone cracked a joke—I won’t repeat it here—and in spite of my nerves, I found myself laughing a little. A short-lived camaraderie grew between us. It only lasted a couple of hours, but it was oddly comforting and gave me tremendous confidence in the year to come: I could still make friends.
And really, that was the whole point of the tradition, a consideration I failed to recognize at the time. No one (except me) had any delusions of grandeur. The reason this ritual was instituted was to force us into a final group project, to make us work together and build friendships and create inside jokes that would make us laugh at our high school reunions, decades away. The hope was that we would gather around this story and make something together. And quite honestly, we did. In theory, it shouldn’t have worked, but casting older teenagers as young children has its own charm. It also didn’t hurt that we were portraying the greatest story ever told. Besides the actual Mary, Imogene Herdman is my favorite Mary, and I always remember how vulnerable and awed she looked, played by Jamie Jones in May of 2003. I am glad that for the final two hours of our endeavor, I was invited to be present with these people I had grown to love, to be thankful for their tolerance of me, and to enjoy what we had constructed together, however clumsy or flawed it turned out to be.
This Christmas, you are welcome to adopt my Senior Play Approach and force those around you to steamroll through traditions with no explanation or apology. Or you can show a little more thoughtfulness, step back, and consider what we are inviting the world to observe. The birth of Jesus is a mind-boggling concept, and its celebration has evolved into some weird rituals. We ask little children to recite passages about a virgin. We sing cheery songs about an infant born to die. We reenact the story of a pregnant teenager denied basic hospitality and forced to give birth in a barn, surrounded by animals and filth. We gloss over the less beatific characters; King Herod, thirsty for the blood of infants, is often relegated to a footnote, if he appears at all. We romanticize the ending, when sweet Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt, becoming the world’s most famous refugees.
American Christians have a time-honored tradition of dragging the secular world through a sugary version of this narrative. We clutch our pearls in horror when they refuse to take the celebration seriously, when they hesitate to participate in our public acknowledgements of the festivities. And though I’m not a part of the secular community, I imagine that they react to our unrestrained display of Christmas the same way that my classmates’ parents responded to our senior play: they show up out of obligation, applaud at the appropriate times, bite their tongues, and don’t ask questions, lest they offend our (very) fragile egos.
The story that we are so frantic to protect can teach us some important truths about this holiday. Baby Jesus survived a tumultuous birth and escaped a genocide targeted directly at him. He’s pretty tough. Surely he can survive The Assault on Christmas 2016 without our petty foot-stomping. We would do well to follow his example, the one he clearly laid out for us, and invite everyone—the rural poor, the urban royalty, the pious, the religious, the saints and sinners—to come and see the Baby. We need not mandate a response to his glory. His people will not be compelled by obligation, by fits of self-righteousness, by politics, by appropriate greetings, by boycotts, or by chest thumping. We are compelled by love, as we always have been, because that is how the Designer of the Universe, the Messiah, Emmanuel, made us.
In the shadowy wings of the stage, a girl I hardly knew made eye contact with me. “This,” she said, referring to her Senior Play Experience, “was kind of fun.” I grinned back at her. “Thanks,” I replied. It was.