Our church just announced this year’s Christmas Eve “Experience.” It will truly be an event, with an official title (for promotional purposes, I assume), a huge cast, handcrafted costumes, well-built scenery, lights, carols—even ice skating!—plus a reenactment of the nativity and a candlelight service. Thousands of people will come to each of the three performances, and I’m sure they’ll be impressed.
The church we attended when our kids were young was much smaller—350 people instead of 10,000. There was no way we were going to compete with the huge productions of much larger churches. Instead, our Christmas program was pretty much the complete opposite.
There were no auditions, no rehearsals, and no lines to memorize. The pastor picked a Sunday night a few weeks before Christmas, and everyone just showed up.
Every child aged three through six had a part. The younger half of the cast were all shepherds, while the older kids were angels. Boxes of appropriately-sized costumes were pulled out of the church basement every year and helpful parents got their kids ready.
The older kids couldn’t all be involved, but we still needed a narrator, some wise men, Mary, Joseph, and Gabriel. Those were coveted roles, and hands waved wildly until all were assigned parts. A couple of dads headed for the back of the building to put on the camel costume—consisting of a head with eye-holes and an old canvas sheet attached to cover the humps on back. Of course, there was much good-natured ribbing about who would end up in the rear!
What’s a nativity without Jesus? That role was always played by the newest baby in the congregation, sometimes only a few days old.
Once everyone was ready, the narrator started in reading from Luke, and a few adults directed each child to the right spot on stage. Chaos reigned at first, but eventually everyone found their place. Lopsided halos and arguing shepherds were just part of the show. The camel made its way down the center aisle, only running into a few obstacles as the wise men walked along side, helping to guide it.
Gabriel climbed the ladder, holding the star high over the manger, and Mary and Joseph took their places next to the manger. Joseph tried not to look too embarrassed at being paired with a girl. Then Mary was handed baby Jesus. While she tried to keep the baby content, the shepherds and angels squirmed, waved at mom and dad, and did all the other embarrassing things that little kids do on stage. Finally the narrator was done and everyone in the congregation sang a few favorite carols.
In spite of the impromptu nature of the performance (or maybe because of it!), there wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary. After all, no one rehearsed for that first Christmas either.
Once all the actors and actresses had taken their last curtain call, baby Jesus was returned to his parents, the costumes went back into their boxes, the camel was put away for next year, and everyone headed into Fellowship Hall for a Christmas party, complete with cookies, crafts, and a piñata.
Our kids are all grown up now, but ask either of them about their favorite Christmas memories, and I’m sure to be at the top of the list. There’s a place for professional-level productions, and I’m sure a lot of people will hear the gospel for the first time at our church this year, but we don’t have to be practiced experts to spread the good news about Christmas. Jesus’ birth became real to our kids and their friends on the stage of a small church in California.