Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas 1964

From the December 19, 2004 Kingsport Times News:

They don’t do Christmas pageants like they used to.
The minister at my church, Bethel Presbyterian, Rev. Gary Bement, told me that Christmas pageants aren’t as popular as they once were, that many churches have switched to Christmas cantatas. That’s what Bethel does now.
When I was a kid, the Christmas pageant was the highlight of the holiday season. After the Sears catalogue.
You worked your way up in the Bethel Christmas pageant.
The girls started out as one of the Multitude of Heavenly Hosts in junior high, climbing the ranks to Angel of the Lord and culminating in the portrayal of Mary.
On the boys’ side you started as a shepherd boy. As a high school sophomore I had moved up to third king - the one with myrrh, whatever that was. As a junior I was the lead Wise Man, the one with gold. I was poised as a senior to ascend to the most coveted male role in the Bethel Christmas Pageant.
In the fall of 1964 I was all set to be Joseph.
Then Danny Long, who was my best friend, decided that he wanted to be Joseph.
This was heresy as far as I was concerned. He was a junior. But he was my best friend. What to do?
There was no way to audition. Joseph didn’t say anything.
The youth group advisor Darnell Shankel told us to work it out ourselves. We settled on the only solution high school boys knew; we flipped a coin.
I became Joseph. Danny got the part of the Narrator.
That year happened to be one of those years when we had a number of rowdy boys in the youth group, boys who were more interested in having a good time than putting on a Christmas pageant. I may have been one of them.
As the Narrator, Danny would sometimes read the Scriptures out of order in practice, causing the Wise Men to arrive at the manger before Mary and Joseph.
Then when the Angel of the Lord, played by Cindy Ketron, descended upon the manger, some wiseacre in the group of shepherds would supply a sound effect, a high pitched whistle that made it sound as if a spaceship were landing.
This would always crack up Joseph and whenever Joseph cracked up, Mary, played by Kathy Berryman, followed.
The drama of the Nativity was turned into a mystery one practice when a rowdy boy, identity still unknown, kidnapped the baby, replacing it with a ransom note.
We could never seem to get through practice without some sort of prank.
In fact I think the youth group advisors were rethinking the idea of allowing a bunch of teenagers to reenact the Nativity.
The situation came to a head on dress rehearsal night. The pageant director - whose name is lost to history - insisted that the shepherd boys and Joseph, all of whom wore burlap tunics, could not wear school pants under the tunics. They must go barelegged, she proclaimed. This did not sit well with the tunic corp. One, it would be cold. Two, none of us wanted to show our hairy legs.
Steve Peters, one of the shepherd boys, remembers that one of us announced, “If we have to show bare leg, then those angels better fly.”
Steve says it was Joseph who said that. It may have been.
There were a few worried folks - mostly those who had worked on the pageant - in the congregation that Christmas Eve as the church lights dimmed.
Before we headed on stage our pastor, Reverend Dick Keeton, asked Danny and I if it was true that we had let a coin toss pick Joseph. We lowered our heads, expecting a lecture. But he disarmed us, saying he was proud that there was so much interest in playing Joseph. And he said he thought the way we settled it was “Biblical,” that in Jesus’ time something like that would have been settled by casting lots. “Very Biblical,” he said again.
As Danny began to narrate the Christmas story, it was a relief that he wasn’t shuffling the pages, sending the shepherds to an empty manger. “There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he read as Mary and Joseph marched across the stage. We approached the manger with trepidation. Would the baby be in there? It was smiling up sweetly, looking more like a real baby than a plastic doll.
Next Danny read: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
The shepherd boys entered but now they weren’t sword fighting with their staffs, which they had been doing earlier in the week. They entered reverently.
Next he read: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them” That’s when Cindy Ketron entered from the choir loft. There were no sound effects, just a radiant high school girl, and the shepherd boys really did look sore afraid. They were no longer high school kids whose legs were freezing. They were paupers, too poor to afford more than a sackcloth garb, come to worship the King.
Next Danny read: “There came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” The Three Wise Men entered. None pretended to trip.
Then a spotlight lit up the manger where Mary and Joseph were kneeling. And the kid running the spotlight didn’t streak it all around the wall, like there was a prison break.
“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
Suddenly those wrapped packages seemed more than props.
As the pageant proceeded everything fell into place. The Multitude of Heavenly Hosts were in fine voice as they sang. The shepherd boys played tribute to the babe in the manger. The kings were worshipful. Kathy Berryman was glowing, as if she was imbued with the spirit.
The Christmas pageant went off without a hitch.
None of us has ever forgotten that magical evening.
And the spirit of the season seemed to shine even brighter, because it had been brought to life by the least of them.

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