I learned about drama from The Episcopal Church. It was like Broadway for a budding young actor.
Church had everything: a spectacular stage with awesome props, dramatic organ music, a captive audience and the greatest scripts ever written.
And as a kid, the high point of all the drama was the annual Christmas Pageant.
I waited all year for the chance to go to the front of the church in full costume and to re-enact the most important Bible story of all.
The competition was cut-throat as hell. Every little girl in the church wanted to be Mary because well, who wouldn’t want to be her.
Mary was the ultimate diva, the perfect ingenue, so young and beautiful. With her gracefully draped blue robes, she effortlessly stole the show.
There was no one else even in the running because Jesus was a disappointing naked baby-doll, buried facedown in the straw, and Joseph was a lackluster sidekick, not all that necessary, really.
As a kid in our parish, I waited every year to get my big break. I’d done my time as a sheep and an angel and I was ready to move up.
You’d think that with my dad being the minister and all I could get the lead, but no, I never did. The best part I ever got was The Innkeeper’s Daughter.
I had all of three lines. But I was determined to be the most in-character, enthusiastic actor on stage when I belted them out: “Papa, Papa! Some GREAT thing will befall us tonight!” all the way to the back pew.
In rehearsal, the director had me say the lines over and over, trying to cure me of some perceived nasal whine, but it didn’t register, I was too intent on holding my scratchy wool costume together because I’d popped a button and my stomach was pudging out of the waistband of the skirt.
Anyway, the whole thing was high drama and all of us kids took it very seriously.
Because there was no other time in the church year where children featured so prominently, except maybe at baptism, but we were pretty much unconscious for all of that.
And you know I’ve always thought that we kids were the best re-enactors of the Bible stories because we simply weren’t afraid to get messy with the text.
We weren’t overly pious.
And Jesus, Mary and Joseph were everyday personal to us – we embodied them easily, we loved them, we believed in them.
Unfortunately it was a very short season in which to star and we knew it.
Because of course we grew up.
Years later, when I was a teenager, I missed going to the afternoon kids’ service. I hated to graduate to the grown up Midnight Mass – so serious, so pious, so lacking in twinkle and spontaneity.
I became jaded; I remember the year my boyfriend and I snuck glasses of cheer at the house while the others in the family had gone ahead to the service; Mom to sing with the choir and of course Dad to prepare.
Let’s just get through this tiresome night.
And then the years went by and our two kids were Mary and Joseph (incest at its best), and a little of that Nativity magic was revived in my heart when I watched them proudly from the back of the church.
I think that the reason we love to see the little ones re-enact the Christmas story is because it brings back how we felt at that age, how everything was so tactile, so immediate: the brightly burning tapers, the fresh greenery smell, the well-worn carols, the quiet hush as the pageant began.
It was real, the suspense of Christmas Eve.
And even though it was the same retelling every year sometimes the questions felt new.
Did we really believe?
But today it seems to me that it is less a question of belief, and more about faith. Not necessarily what is true, but what is possible.
And to me that is what children teach us.
To hear the story told by them, with their runny noses and sugar-induced tantrums, in a pretend manger, with an Innkeeper’s daughter saying her lines with absolute conviction, while she holds her skirt together and feels pretty proud.
And the hot burning wax and the drowning organ, and the distant memory of a time when I believed that I belonged there, in the crèche, as a figure in the Nativity, God’s child.
And now the memories take me back across so many years, and the child in me still holds that wonder and asks the same question – what is possible?