Come “nigh” To The Manger

If it’s December, you know what’s going on (besides frenzied shopping, frantic Christmas card writing, loads of baking and “cleaning for company”)–Sunday School Christmas pageants in churches of all denominations.  Although I lack a teacher’s temperament, some years ago I nevertheless landed an unlooked-for gig as a piano accompanist and assistant with our church’s children’s program.  This responsibility naturally came gift-wrapped with the privilege of helping prepare and corral the pre-K through fifth- or sixth-grade kids for the annual Christmas pageant.  Oh, the perils!

Coaxing small, and sometimes reluctant, children to sing songs such as “Away in a Manger” (with its timeless actions) and “Silent Night” reveals many gaps in vocabulary development and foibles of the English language that adults take for granted.

“What’s a manger?”  is one query heard this season.  When the kids were repeatedly trailing off on the phrase “…’til morning is nigh,” I asked if they knew what “nigh” meant.  “Night!” was the rapid, confident and very wrong response.  A speedy vocabulary lesson ensued, as I and my patient (and vastly more experienced) co-director sidetracked from the rehearsal at hand to educate the kids on the meaning and correct pronunciation of words like “moor,” “traverse,” “yonder” and “proceeding.”

“I believe there is a special place in heaven for people who direct church Christmas programs,” praised one kind parishioner last Sunday at the conclusion of this year’s show.

I’m beginning to think she is right.  It’s clear that many well-intentioned directors have met with unexpected stress in the course of setting up manger scenes, clothing fidgety angels and sheep, coordinating Scripture readings and coping with unforeseen absences and appearances of participants.  Just think of the renown enjoyed by “The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever,” a book (later adapted into a play and movie) written in 1971 by Barbara Robinson, describing how the six delinquent Herdman children nearly wreck a church’s Christmas pageant with their antics.

And lest anyone could forget, the acclaimed “A Charlie Brown Christmas” centers on Charlie’s efforts to rally his unruly friends for his Christmas play, as he searches for the true meaning of Christmas.

“Stop the music!” Charlie Brown yells at one pivotal moment.  “We’re going to do this play, and we’re going to do it right.”

Good luck with that.  Like the hapless Charlie B., my co-director and I have learned the hard way that church Christmas pageants will take their own forms.  While we stand by in despair as tarted-up tots in donkey suits nibble hay from the manger scene and break character to wave at relatives, the Virgin Mary crassly lifts her dress and drops the baby Jesus, a young reader earnestly proclaims, “To be taxed with Mary his exposed wife,” or an overheated angel faints and bumps her head on the communion rail, the attending families and congregants laugh, smile and keep their video cameras rolling.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see how cute it is from our side of the piano or music stand, especially when our careful plans seem to spiral out of control.  But maybe it’s a lesson for life and spirituality; as the saying goes, you have to let go and let God.

Even when, in a moment of extreme pageant exasperation one year, my long-suffering colleague was driven to mutter, “I need a tall drink and a long vacation,” parents and others pumped our hands at the program’s close, saying, “That was the best Christmas program ever.”

So with Linus, I’ll try to be sanguine and simply share Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”



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