Bethlehem Does Broadway

The fierce competition and high cost of children’s Christmas pageants.

Traditional Nativity. Click image to enlarge.
Nativity scene

Few Christmas traditions are as well-loved among Christians as the annual children’s pageant. Countless Marys, Josephs, shepherds, angels, donkeys, and assorted other biblical and not-so-biblical fauna have been preparing for weeks—sometimes months—to dramatize a story that inspires feelings of peace and goodwill.

But, particularly in wealthier churches, what goes on behind the scenes isn’t always quite so bucolic. Trying to keep the show civil and on-message can sometimes lead to compromises at once ridiculous and profound.

Often, one of the biggest struggles of the pageant season is fierce, parent-driven competition over parts. It doesn’t help when roles like the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel are thought to be valuable padding for a college résumé—a great part demonstrates an interest in the theater and church!—making for a tense atmosphere at auditions if unchecked by ministers and pageant leaders. One strategy here, as elsewhere in this hectic season, is simple avoidance. The education director at First Lutheran Church in Chapel Hill, N.C., has kids show up the morning of the pageant dressed as whatever character in the Nativity story they choose. Of course, she has to be prepared for that chorus line of Virgin Marys—depending on your view of the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Joseph at First Lutheran was either very happy or very frustrated when 16 Virgin Marys showed up one year. Occasionally, unscripted characters not found in the Gospels’ telling of the Christmas story appear—gladiators or a combined angel-shepherd-king that she had difficulty placing. But such hassles are nothing compared with telling a girl she’s not going to be Mary.

Other churches find different ways around the competition. A minister who oversees the annual pageant at a large church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan told me that her church used to give the role of Virgin Mary to the daughter of that year’s highest donor. But, she hastened to add, they stopped doing that when competition among the parents started to sour the mood. Sometimes, just showing up is the best way to secure a plum role. Emily Given is the former director of children’s ministries at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in well-heeled Darien, Conn., where, as she put it, “you’re waiting in line for Mary since you were baptized.” Rather than holding auditions or checking donation records, she bases her decision on church attendance. “It really came down to who was there, to who really made a longtime, deeper commitment. You might be beautiful and look just like what Mary looked like—whatever that means—but if you weren’t here, you missed the boat.”

Another strategy is to try to make other parts more appealing so kids are less devastated when they don’t get parts they want. Given created “assistant stage manager” roles, popular since these kids get to wear headset microphones “like the clergy [at her church] normally wear.”

In my former church, Grace Church in New York, where the pageant packs in more than 1,000 people on Christmas Eve, sartorially inclined kids with lesser roles could find solace in the really nice costumes—like shepherds’ robes sewn from a large donation of high-end fabric from Kate Spade.

Which raises another struggle for church education directors, clergy, and parents: keeping the cost and time demands from undermining what should be a message counseling fellowship and generosity. It can seem a little strange for a priest to encourage people to slow down and be contemplative for the Advent season, only to turn around and hand them a long list of mandatory rehearsals. Watching the costs pile up can be distressing, too. With costumes, paid advertisements in the local paper of record, sound systems, voice tutors, unionized lighting specialists, choreographers, live animals, set designers, backdrops, props, and post-pageant parties, budgets can run into the thousands. The children’s minister at a large church on Park Avenue told me that her church spent $36,000 on their pageant in 1994. In the years since, they’ve managed to whittle it down to “around $7,000, but the costs creep up and up.” This year, to save money, they simply canceled it.

But if all this sounds particularly reflective of our contemporary economic and class anxiety, consider that pageants have a long history of social contention and other sharp-elbowed behavior. One well-known antecedent to our Christmas pageants were the medieval mystery plays, which showcased biblical stories for largely illiterate audiences. The mystery plays were much more sweeping, starting with the Creation and ending with the final judgment, and were acted out by adult members of guilds, who performed them on platforms (paginae, whence pageant) set up around the town. Even so, there are striking similarities between the mystery plays and some of our modern-day pageants. “Guilds would take ownership and were very competitive about it,” says Gretchen Pritchard, who holds a Ph.D. in medieval literature from Yale and is a recently retired director of youth ministries at an Episcopal church in New Haven, Conn.

The medieval pageants could also get costly, with guilds pouring quite a lot of money and time into them. The investment was thought to be worthwhile as an early form of advertising. Each guild would dramatize those stories that best showcased their wares or services: The Guild of Wine Sellers put on the wedding feast at Cana (where Jesus changes water into the evening’s best wine); the Guild of Bakers, the Last Supper; the Guild of Shipmakers, Noah’s ark; the Guild of Sausage Makers, the story where Judas’ guts spill out all over the ground (no joke). Such mercantile objectives aren’t much different from the way churches use Christmas pageants today to both advertise their churches and fill the offering plate to make up for any shortfall in that year’s budget.

Early forms of today’s prepubescent magi shambling toward a bashful, wire-haloed holy family weren’t all so mercenary. One clear forerunner to our Christmas pageants is the first living Nativity scene, staged in the 13th century by St. Francis of Assisi, the self-dispossessed son and heir of a wealthy fabric merchant. Though the luxury may have galled him, Francis—who himself gave much of his father’s fine fabric to the poor—may nevertheless have looked approvingly on the charity reflected in the Kate Spade-clad shepherds at Grace Church.

But these historical precedents can’t alleviate the discomfort over the pageants’ competition, cost, and occasional lacking in Christmas spirit. Barbara Robinson’s children’s book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells of a hard-driving pageant director whose tidy pageant starring the nicest kids in town is taken by a group of ruffians who end up telling the story better than the good kids ever could. Does Robinson’s book appeal because it speaks to our fear that our pageants don’t quite stick to the Gospel message? Perhaps. In the perennial holiday TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown abandons his pageant after the other kids protest that he’s chosen a third-rate Christmas tree. The humble tree and Linus’ improbably reverent recitation of Luke Chapter 2 in the end prove a much more stirring pageant than the one they’d rehearsed.

For all the flaws of children’s Christmas pageants, they are, to all who participate in or watch them, almost always moving. That may account for the longevity of these “tidings of great joy” dramatized in forums both refined and rustic, by actors both rehearsed and improvising. From my experience as a priest in wealthy churches, and my anticipation of this year staging my first Christmas pageant at my small parish on the Hudson River, I’ve the feeling that all this (maybe minus the more egregious excesses) is somehow right. After all, this gets to what we like about the story: The human is never far from the holy—in fact, it is the holy. The personal contentions, class contradictions, and amateur miscues are especially reflective of, and are ultimately always transcended by, the messy but still sublimely beautiful story told.