Published: Sunday, December 22, 1985



My most vivid childhood memory of Christmas that does not involve opening presents, putting batteries in presents, playing with presents and destroying presents before sundown, is the annual Nativity Pageant at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Armonk, N.Y. This was a major tradition at St. Stephen's, which had quite few of them. For example, at Easter, we had the Hoisting of the Potted Hyacinths. Each person in the congregation was issued a potted hyacinth, and we'd sing a song that had a lot of "alleleuias" in it, and every time we'd get to one, we'd all hoist our pots over our heads. This is the truth. Remember it next time somebody tells you Episcopalians never really get loose.

But the big event was the Nativity Pageant, which almost all the Sunday School kids were drafted to perform in. Mrs. Elson, who had experience in the Legitimate Theater, was the director, and she would tell you what role you would play, based on your artistic abilities. Like, if your artistic abilities were that you were short, you would get a role as an angel, which involved being part of the Heavenly Host and gazing with adoration upon the Christ Child and trying not to scratch yourself. The Christ Child was played by one of those dolls that close their eyes when you lay them down because they have weights in their heads. I know this because Neil Thompson and I once conducted a research experiment wherein we scientifically opened a doll's head up with a hammer. (This was not the doll that played the Christ Child, of course. We used a doll that belonged to Neil's sister, Penny, who once tied her dog to the bumper of my mother's car roughly five minutes before my mother drove the car to White Plains. But that is another story.)

Above your angels, you had your three shepherds. Shepherd was my favorite role, because you got to carry a stick, plus you spent most of the pageant waiting back in the closet with the rope that led up to the church bell and about 750,000 bats. Many were the happy rehearsal hours we shepherds spent back there, in the dark, whacking each other with sticks and climbing up the ladder so as to cause bat emission products to rain down upon us ("And lo, when the shepherds did looketh towards the heavens, they did see, raining down upon them, a multitude of guano . . .").

When it was our turn to go out and perform, we shepherds would emerge from the closet, walk up the aisle, and hold a conference to determine whether or not we should go to Bethlehem. One year when I was a shepherd, the role of First Shepherd was played by Mike Craig, who always, at every rehearsal, would whisper: "Let's ditch this joint." Of course this does not strike you as particularly funny, but believe me, if you were a 10-year-old who had spent the past hour in a bat- infested closet, it would strike you as amusing in the extreme, and it got funnier every time, so that when Mike said it on Christmas Eve during the actual pageant, it was an awesome thing, the hydrogen bomb of jokes, causing the shepherds to almost pee their garments as they staggered off, snorting, toward Bethlehem.

After a couple of years at shepherd, you usually did a stint as a Three King. This was not nearly as good a role, because (a) you didn't get to wait in the closet, and (b) you had to lug around the gold, the frankincense and of course the myrrh, which God forbid you should drop because they were played by valuable antique containers belonging to Mrs. Elson. Nevertheless, being a Three King was better than being Joseph, because Joseph had to hang around with Mary, who was played by (YEECCCCCHHHHHHH) a girl. You had to wait backstage with this girl, and walk in with this girl, and gaze upon the Christ Child with this girl, and needless to say you felt like a total wonk, which was not helped by the fact that the shepherds and the Three Kings were constantly suggesting that you liked this girl. So during the pageant, Joseph tended to maintain the maximum allowable distance from Mary, as though she were carrying some kind of fatal bacteria.

On Christmas Eve, we were all pretty nervous, but thanks to all the rehearsals, the pageant generally went off with only 60 or 70 hitches. Like for example one year Ernie Dobbs, a Three King, dropped the frankincense only moments before showtime, and he had to go on carrying, as I recall, a Rolodex. Also there was the famous incident where the shepherds could not get out of the bat closet for the longest while, and thus lost their opportunity for that moment of dramatic tension where they confer and the audience is on the edge of its pews, wondering what they'll decide. When they finally emerged, all they had time to do was lunge directly to Bethlehem.

But we always got through the pageant, somehow, and Mrs. Elson always told us what a great job we had done, except for the year Ernie broke the frankincense. Afterwards, whoever had played Joseph would try to capture and destroy the rest of the male cast. Then we would go home to bed, with visions of Mattel- brand toys requiring six "D" cell batteries (not included) dancing in our heads. Call me sentimental, but I miss those days.

© 1985 Dave Barry. The information you receive on-line from
this site is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting,
or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.

NOTE: We're happy to have you link to this page on your web site, or send the link to your friends in email. But please don't copy the columns and put them on your site, or send them out in email. Thanks.


Go back to Dave's Columns