One of the best aspects of the Advent/Christmas season is the parish Nativity pageant. It also goes by other names, such as Christmas pageant, Nativity play, or Les Misérables (which describes the parents who have to explain to the pastor why they thought it was a good idea to bring live farm animals into the church sanctuary, one of whom just deposited some steaming tidings of comfort and joy right on the new carpeting).
The format for most Christmas pageants is similar. The younger children in the parish C.C.D. program volunteer to play the parts, oftentimes volunteering just like privates in the army when a sergeant points at them and says, “Congratulations, you just volunteered!”
There are many important parts in the play, none more crucial than St. Joseph. Although he has no lines and does not move from his spot next to the crèche, it takes a very special fourth grade boy to play this part. He must have a dignified appearance; he must refrain from suddenly running over to inspect the steaming pile of comfort and joy deposited by the farm animal, as all the other impulsive fourth-grader shepherds just did; and most of all, he must resist the urge to die of embarrassment while sitting right next to a fourth grade girl playing the part of his wife, who no doubt is infected with a severe case of the dreaded “cooties,” while all his shepherd friends point at him and giggle.
The role of Mary is important, too. Especially if one of the parents, usually the same parent who thought the live farm animals was a good idea, decides it would be wonderfully authentic if the part of Jesus is played by a real live human infant rather than a toy doll. Therefore, the fourth grade girl who plays the part of Mary not only must exude holiness, she has to know how to hold an infant without giving him whiplash, and how to keep her cool when the little tyke starts screaming at the top of his lungs—which definitely was not in the script, but you know how temperamental three-month old show business celebrities are.
When the infant starts screaming and flailing, the actual mother of the child, who has been nervously waiting in the wings wondering how she ever let herself be talked into this, tip-toes out to the center of the action to try and calm her baby. For some reason, adults who need to assist wayward junior thespians during the middle of a performance think if they tip-toe and bend at the waist while on stage then no one in the audience can see them. They are wrong.
The climax of the action occurs when the final three actors make their grand entrance. That’s right, it’s time for the Magi, the Three Kings, bringing their gifts of an empty shoebox wrapped in gold paper, an empty shoebox wrapped in silver paper, and an empty shoebox wrapped in the Sunday comics.
The great thing about parish Nativity pageants is that no matter how much the performance deviates from the script, no matter how much the farm animals or infants or distracted shepherds try to steal scenes by ad-libbing, the show is always a rousing success. This is because the story itself is so compelling: the Creator God of the Universe decided to take on human flesh in order to save mankind, and He did it in the most unexpected and humble manner.
So, make sure you attend your parish’s Nativity pageant this year. And watch out for that steaming pile of comfort and joy.