Sunday, October 21: With the conclusion of the Gloria Patri, Parkview Community Church members take their seats to hear the morning’s congregational announcements: Dotty Ridnour’s hip replacement went well, tickets remain for the bus outing to Shipshewana, and Ralph Hodgins is still missing his hat.
Pastor of Outreach and Concerns Ross Mebler then pauses, waiting for the congregants to finish passing the Friendship Pads before continuing:
“Parkview friends,” Pastor Mebler offers, “the holiday season will be here before we know it, and planning for the preschool through fifth grade Christmas pageant must soon begin.”
The Reverend’s tone turns serious: “As many of you are aware, longtime coordinator Loretta Francis passed away this spring. That means that we are in need of a new pageant director. If you are willing to consider this ministry, or if you have the spiritual gift of Christmas programming, please let someone on the church board know.”
Monday, November 13: The 7 PM meeting of the Parkview Church Board observes that no volunteers have come forward to lead the children’s Christmas pageant. “There just aren’t many people who want to follow Loretta,” laments Board Chair Don Delso.
“Loretta was Loretta,” concede the others.
Following additional coffee and Chex Mix, a motion is made, seconded, and carried to ask two women of the congregation to serve as co-directors:
Flo Benson, a retired school nurse, is nominated on account of the fact that “She has worked with kids in the past and she always talks about wanting to see Hamilton.”
Michelle Kooima, a bank teller new to the church, is suggested as a running mate. “We’ve been hoping the Kooimas would get more involved in church anyway,” proposes elder Garrett Lee. “Seems to me this is just killin’ two birds with one stone.”
Deacon Roger Pruitt closes in prayer.
Tuesday, November 14: Don Delso emails Flo and Michelle, asking them to spearhead the pageant. “The Board hopes,” Don writes, “that you will introduce Parkview to new levels of creativity, while keeping things mostly unchanged from the way they’ve always been.”
The winsomeness of the overture is not lost on the women, and in what would be recognized later as an answer to prayer, Flo Benson and Michelle Kooima agree to co-direct the pageant. “I guess you could say that we’re pioneers,” Michelle reports to her husband Chad. “She’s more/less the Naomi, and I’m the Priscilla. We’re heading across the Jordan River together.”
Chad nods, offering to assist with “things like lumber and sleighs” if needed.
Sunday, November 18: After three weeks of prompts in the church bulletin (and a large-font post on Facebook; 17 likes, 2 shares), the Parkview Sunday School receives its annual Special Offering For The Post-Pageant Candy Bags. The offering totals $848.30; this ingathering represents Parkview’s largest-ever Sunday School collection. Deacon Merle Harskamp updates the wooden Attendance and Giving Records board above the church organ to reflect the new high-water mark.
Sunday, December 2: Via a method neither defensibly scientific nor entirely arbitrary, pageant Co-Directors Flo Benson and Michelle Kooima distribute speaking parts to Parkview’s third through fifth graders. Kira Wesley, whose father had previously loaned his leaf blower to Mr. Benson, receives the coveted role of Mary.
Less enthusiastic is the family of Josh Adkins, the fourth-grader assigned to Luke 2’s tongue-twisting text about Quirinius of Syria. Nonplussed, Mrs. Adkins sets a Google reminder for VBS season. “There goes your annual fruit pizza, Florence,” she is heard to mutter.
Saturday, December 8: Challenges abound at the first rehearsal. Three of the sanctuary’s stage lights are out, Amazon hasn’t delivered the Styrofoam Genuine Middle Eastern MangerTM, and the Thanksgiving cornucopia remains to be moved.
Flo aims for optimism but quickly determines that Angels We Have Heard on High isn’t going to work. “I told them to say ‘in egg shells is day old’ but it just didn’t catch,” she emails Michelle later.
Following rehearsal, Michelle records several notes on a legal pad:
- Powerpoint may be an option for depicting the Christmas star, but we have to be sure that “Windows Update” is finished prior to the next practice.
- Marcie Yost and Jenna Rogers cannot stand near each other. They have it out for each other.
- Brad Nelson and Jenna Rogers cannot stand near each other. They like each other too much.
- Jenna Rogers is an existential threat.
- When selecting a doll to place in the manger, do not use Real Baby Burpie. If there are no other options, we have to remember to remove the four C batteries prior to performance.
- Microphone etiquette is essential. Too much mouth breathing among the six-year-olds.
- The nursery totally smells like Ritz Crackers???
Friday, December 14: Many churchgoers are paying close attention to local weatherman Bob Grobb’s weekend forecast. An upper-level disturbance will be moving through the tristate area, placing Parkview “under the gun” (per Bob Grobb) “for four, to maybe as much as six inches of the white stuff.”
That evening, somber Parkview church board members exchange dismayed phone calls about the next morning’s rehearsal. “It’s just not worth it,” moans long-time elder Frank Robinksi. “The way they’re talking, we could get a couple of feet, and that’s not counting the wind.”
After agreeing to a half-hour “season of discernment,” Chairman Delso decides to cancel the Saturday practice. The Berean Prayer Chain is used to disseminate the news.
Saturday, December 15: Under sunny skies, Parkview citizens spend the morning raking twigs from their lawns. It’s 48o.
Tuesday, December 18: The Christmas pageant faces an existential crisis when Joseph-elect Matthew Frasier breaks his wrist at rec league hockey.
Immediately, questions arise about whether the fifth-grader can fulfill the role of Jesus’ earthly father. “As far as I know,” Rev. Mebler shares on his personal blog, “there is no protocol for something like this. We’re totally flying without radar.”
At the local Hallmark store, several Parkview women weigh in over coffee. Opinions range from “There just no way the Babylonians had casts like that!” to “Could we wrap it something like a panty hose so it looks like a real arm?” to “I just kinda think it’s a witness in and of itself.”
After supper, Mrs. Frasier phones a proposed solution to Flo Benson. “Lucas can do it,” she offers, laying bare the theatrical ambitions she’s long held for her second son. “I know he’s only in third grade, but I’ve always thought that Lucas was sorta like a young Jake Gyllenhaal, or even like Chandler from friends.”
Flo nobly accepts the offer; Mr. Benson observes a slight eyeroll.
Wednesday, December 19: Capitalizing on the controversy to boost her social media footprint, Grandma Corrine Frasier sets up a CaringBridge page for Matthew. “Matt’s a fighter,” she writes, appending a flexed-muscle emoji.
Saturday, December 21: The final rehearsal prior to the pageant takes place in Chad Kooima’s newly-built Bethlehem set.
The only hangup in the stable’s construction involved the repositioning of the brass-plaqued Budd and Mina Sue Graber Baptismal Font. The Graber family, when contacted, expressed some misgivings about sliding the sacramental piece eight feet to the north; ultimately, the family agreed to the change provided the font’s position would be marked out with masking tape to ensure its exact return.
As practice concludes, Flo makes a special point of emphasizing the appropriate way to hold the microphone. “Please don’t tap it, breathe into it, or ask if it’s turned on,” she coaches. “And remember our special phrase: ‘It’s a microphone, not an ice cream cone.’”
Dutifully, the Parkview children repeat the sing-song mantra: “It’s a microphone, not an ice cream cone.”
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 23: PAGEANT PERFORMANCE DAY
10:31 AM: As the morning worship service concludes, Rev. Mebler encourages Parkview’s members to invite their friends and relatives to the six o’clock performance. Hot chocolate and brownies will be available, he cajoles, and it will be such a treat to sing Angels We Have Heard on High together with the children!
10:39 AM: Pastor Mebler straightens his tie as he leaves a closed-door meeting with Flo and Michelle.
10:53 AM: Parkview church secretary Lois Drinkowitz sends out a church-wide email. The subject field says Update Re: Angels We Have Heard on High.
4:45 PM: Participants arrive at the church and begin getting in costume. Bedsheets and halos are attached to angels, the students assigned to be Friendly Beasts receive their tails, and the magi’s Burger King crowns are fitted appropriately.
In a last-minute flash of inspiration, Michelle determines to “level up the authenticity” by bearding each of the shepherds. A mad dash is made to the arts and crafts room, and Michelle returns with a brown washable marker. Though some of the boys squirm, most receive their Crayola facial hair willingly. Regrettably, the ink runs low halfway through the final herdsman’s makeup, and young Grayson Highler must perform with only lengthened sideburns.
5:21 PM: Parkview’s sanctuary begins to fill with eager family members. In a peculiarity seen only once per year, the church rows fill in a mostly front-to back sequence. “The pew cushions up here sure are comfortable,” one pleasantly-surprised retiree remarks. “It’s almost like they’ve never been used.” Another middle-schooler discovers a children’s bulletin printed seven years earlier inside one of the hymnals. The Barak and Deborah word search is only half-completed.
5:46 PM: After nearly twenty minutes of waiting around in row five, reluctant attendee Todd Rice (first cousin to Kira Wesley) busies himself with memorizing the pew Bible’s Table of Weights and Measures. He is saddened to find no good mnemonic device for learning the lethek to ephah conversion.
“There is a grand total of 318 ceiling tiles in here,” whispers someone a few rows back.
6:02 PM: Following organist Betty Zingerman’s stirring prelude (a cut-time medley of Mary, Did You Know, Coventry Carol, and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), Pastor Mebler welcomes the congregation with the words of Micah 5 and with a regrettable comment about Mrs. Mebler’s Christmas sweater. All church members are invited to stand and sing O Come, All Ye Faithful while the children process down the aisle to their positions.
6:07 AM: The program begins with the Preschool Department’s performance of Away in a Manger. All of the song’s hand motions (rock-the-baby, cheek-on-the-hands, and look-down-from-the-sky) masterfully mirror those of the adult helpers in the front row. Unfortunately, the closing bars are impacted by first-year helper Jessica King’s “sing louder” gesture, which prompts each of the cherubs to dutifully lift cupped hands to their ears, offering a faint impression of diminutive Christmas elephants.
6:12 PM: Soft sobbing is heard from the congregation’s right flank after two-year-old Mackenzie Todd drops a butterscotch candy midway through Gabriel’s announcement. Like an ill-fated Plinko chip, the candy rolls down the gentle slope of the sanctuary floor, eventually emerging between the feet of councilman Bill Griffith. After briefly considering his options, Bill slips the butterscotch into his shirt pocket.
6:17 PM: Three-year-olds Lily Franklin and Brenna House, allowed to remain seated on the front step of the platform during the first two verses of Once in Royal David’s City, create a small stir by lifting their dresses over their heads in an evidently synchronized maneuver. Gratefully, the scandal was minimized by the girls’ mothers who had prudently added additional layers of leggings to their daughters’ ensembles.
6:22 PM: The Preschool Department’s final number has come. Brightly colored handbells are distributed to each of the children for the presentation of Jesus Bells, an exploration of Christ’s dual natures set creatively to the tune of Jingle Bells: “Ful-ly God, Ful-ly Man, Ly-ing in the Hay…”
“Groundbreaking,” whispers Frank Robinski to his wife. “This is the kind of innovation we’ve been looking for.”
6:27 PM: The fourth grade class lines up to recite Luke 2. Fanned out across the front of the platform, they proceed through the text.
Josh Adkins approximates the governor’s name “Curious the Syrian”.
All goes relatively well through Mariah Marks’ “good news of great joy for all the people.” But it becomes apparent thereafter that the single available microphone lacks the necessary cable to reach Jason Long, assigned to verses 11 and 12. Recognizing the issue, Flo urges each of the fourth graders to take three giant steps to the right. The subsequent jostling lacks military precision.
Eventually, the microphone finds Emmet Bass (verse 20), but not before three students choose instead to holler their memorized passages in the general direction of the audience.
Pastor Mebler sighs: “Those lines will never make it onto the recording.”
6:33 PM: The Parkview congregation oohs and aahs as Mary and Joseph, joined by their donkey, proceed up the center aisle. Lucas Frasier, as Joseph, is resplendent in his Uncle Greg’s erstwhile bathrobe. Though the cloak ran a bit large, it did have the advantage of subterfuging Lucas’ feet; to Mrs. Frasier’s mortification, the young man had forgotten Michelle’s instructions about finding passable sandals and had walked to church in a pair of light gray moon boots.
Kira ambles forth as a convincing Mary; few would guess that the child conceived within her was a couch cushion borrowed from the High School Ministry game room.
The donkey is a delight to many there. While bygone pageants had included a live animal, the Church Carpet and Drapery Subcommittee’s 1988 vote (4-2, per official minutes) had subsequently banned livestock from the sanctuary.
Michelle’s workaround was genius. Three diminutive second-graders would huddle like a Chinese dragon beneath a balsa-wood-and-brown-paper burro, following Joseph’s gentle tether toward the manger scene.
The six-legged beast performs admirably in spite of the fact that butcher paper ran low and the hindquarters had to be enclosed with inside-out grocery bags.
Baby Burpie, emptied of her batteries, is placed lovingly in the manger.
6:40 PM: There is a panic in row eleven. Ethel Broom, grandma to Sheep #4 Tyler Broom, shocks to see that her cell phone’s battery power has dropped below 60%. Fearing that she may not be able to “DVR” (her term) the remainder of the performance, Ethel rifles through her purse in search of her iPhone 4’s 30-pin connecting cable. Though she is able to locate the cord, Ethel’s anxiety swells again when she realizes that she is seated nowhere near a power outlet.
Slipping out the side aisle, Ethel speedwalks to the sound booth to seek help from church custodian Bennie Root. Bennie willingly obliges, returning from the janitor’s closet with the orange extension cord typically reserved for the Lions Club Pancake Breakfast. Though Ethel’s vigorous uncoiling distracts some from the shepherds’ hillside scene, most sympathize with her plight.
6:46 PM: It is time for the singing of Infant Holy, Infant Lowly. Michelle takes advantage of the congregation rising for verse two to approach the stable and tell Kira that she may now remove the natal bulge from beneath her sweater. Unfortunately, the cushion becomes diagonally lodged, and it requires a multi-person effort (Flo pulling from the bottom, Michelle pushing down from the neckline) to remove the green paisley pillow.
Thankfully, Betty Zingerman’s eighteen-measure outro provides sufficient cover for the operation.
6:49 PM: The long-anticipated wise men scene commences. With camel construction for the year having been eschewed (Michelle: “I’m putting my foot down on this one”), the three fifth-grade magi enter stage left. They have huddled behind the American flag for quite some time and are eager to present their gold (a shoe box inside Reynolds Wrap), frankincense (a Folgers can inside Reynolds Wrap) and myrrh (an unopened Royal Dansk cookie tin) to the child.
There is a minor kerfuffle as Balthasar’s diadem falls into the manger, but the Babe comes through unscathed.
6:52 PM: The Dedication in the Temple scene reveals the limitations of fifth-grade thespians. Devin Van Voorst, cast as the aging prophet Simeon, grows increasingly agitated with his cotton-batting beard, eventually scratching the left side so vigorously that the temporary adhesive releases from his cheek. With the fluff swinging freely from the right side of his face, Devin sadly loses track of his lines. In lieu of “A light for revelation to the Gentiles,” the young actor blurts “It’s a microphone, not an ice cream cone.”
Anna, played by Jill Jacobs, does better with her speech. But a bit of the scene’s credibility is squandered when, having forgotten to bring her character’s wooden assistive cane, Jill trundles in with one of the Senior Care Ministry’s Courtesy Walkers. The tennis balls underneath prove especially visible under the stage lights.
6:56 PM: With the dramatic portion of the pageant complete, the Parkview Church congregation rises to sing Good Christian Friends, Rejoice. While the joyful tune swells in the sanctuary, Myrtle and Gerald Sensebrenner protest in silence. “Why are they always changing the lyrics of these songs, anyway?” Mrs. Sensebrenner explains later. “It was just fine as Good Christian Men, Rejoice… I don’t want to pin everything on Obama, but still.”
6:59 PM: All of the Parkview children return to the stage for the Grand Finale, a rousing presentation of The Little Drummer Boy. Four dozen empty ice cream buckets (many of which lived briefly as soup supper take-home containers) are distributed to the students. They are followed by makeshift drumsticks (every available implement from the church kitchen, including a Pampered Chef meat tenderizer and a well-worn flyswatter). The pails prove sufficient for every child except Lance Bilbo, a first grader who commandeers the aforementioned cookie tin for his personal tympani.
With gusto, the Parkview children remind the gathered that their gift to the newborn king is their frequent and occasionally synchronized pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. Mindful to discharge her final Marian duty, Kira nods dramatically throughout.
7:04 PM: The audience claps approvingly as the children set down their kitchenware. “You might think this is the end,” says Sunday School Superintendent Lorraine Grossman, emerging from backstage. “But there’s one more surprise, isn’t there, kids? And the best surprises are birthday surprises!”
With a flourish, Betty Zingerman careens into Happy Birthday on the organ. The children delight in emphasizing the line “Happy birthday, dear Jesus”.
At the song’s conclusion, the fifth-grade magi walk to the front carrying a fully-lit birthday cake and a large box (Huggies Premium wrapped in Reynolds Wrap). The box, Lorraine reports, is filled with baby blankets and new toys for the Parkview Rescue Shelter. This is because, she says, “What we give to the neediest in our community is like a birthday gift to Jesus.”
Gerald and Myrt Sensebrenner smile.
7:07 PM: Pastor of Outreach and Concerns Ross Mebler takes to the stage to conclude the service. “We are so thankful to each one of these children, aren’t we?” he asks. The congregation stands to applaud.
“But we have to show super-special gratitude to two very important people tonight.” Vaguely imitating a Las Vegas fight announcer, Pastor Mebler bellows: “Let’s give it up for our fabulous directors!”
Flo Benson and Michelle Kooima are welcomed to the front. The children and parents clap lustily, and the Co-Directors of the Parkview Church Christmas Pageant are presented with matching boxes of Russell Stovers.
7:10 PM: The Fellowship Hall bustles with energy, family selfies, and haphazardly diluted hot chocolate. It is the consensus that this year’s Christmas pageant is one of the best ever. “Mary was really tenacious…and at the same time appropriately mild,” reflects Ethel Broom, the orange extension cord still wrapped from thumb to elbow.
“Agreed,” replied Merle Harskamp. “Loretta would have been proud.”
9:02 PM: Having scraped the last of the candle wax from the sanctuary carpet, Bennie Root prepares to lock up the church building. The Courtesy Walker has been returned to the narthex, the couch cushion is restored to the youth room, and the Budd and Mina Sue Graber Baptismal Font is back in its familiar spot. For whatever reason, the meat tenderizer remains on the front pew. It somehow stands as a silent witness to the gladness and joy of the night’s program.
As he looks once more at the styrofoam manger, it occurs to Bennie that Parkview’s Christmas pageant – rife with its idiosyncrasies, stopgaps, and fumbled lines – is precisely what the birth of Jesus is about. Is for.
The pageant was imperfect. It was noisy and scattershot. It was profoundly amateur. And therefore, Bennie thought, it was human.
The church Christmas program is what happens when people – men and women, boys and girls, bank tellers and custodians – come together and do their level-best to honor their King. Why? Because that King, that Actually Perfect One, came to earth to receive, love, and save people just like them.
Merry Christmas, and Philippians 2:5!