In the church of my childhood one of the major events that took place during the weeks leading up to Christmas was the Christmas Play.
I have no idea how the casting was done. Somehow, parts would be assigned and rehearsals would begin. The cast and crew would work for weeks and weeks in preparation for the single performance that would take place on a Sunday night a couple of weeks before Christmas.
The plays were horrible.
They were also wonderful.
If you want to get a feel for what they were like, watch the movie Waiting for Guffman, which revolves around a community theatre production. Compared to the Christmas plays at Midway Baptist Church, the play in the movie was Tony-worthy.
To be fair, that play was a musical. We did drama at Midway.
I don’t remember the plots. I do remember some of the scenes.
I remember my overall-clad father, standing at an open window outside of which a red light glowed, declaring “That’s a big fire (he pronounced it ‘far’) over there (he pronounced it ‘thar.’)” I suspect that he had pronounced it straight during the rehearsals. Daddy was a ham.
I remember two brothers, portrayed by Randy Berry and Danny Bates, getting into a fight over a toy—I think it was a toy train—under a Christmas tree.
I remember my one and only appearance in one of the plays. The play was set in a department store. I was in line at a cash register. I wanted to buy a gift for my sick mother. With my quarter I planned to purchase a gray rose. Who ever saw a gray rose? The nice clerk told me that for the same quarter I could purchase a pretty red one. It was stark, moving drama. Preacher Bill rolled in laughter during the entire scene.
I remember the obligatory nativity scene near the end of each play. It was usually a dream sequence, I think. Somehow, though, they got the Christmas Story into whatever Christmas story they were telling.
Like I said, the plays were horrible. It would be kind to call our actors amateurs.
But like I also said, they were wonderful. They were wonderful because those were our church members, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, up there on that stage making fools of themselves, whether they knew it or not, all for the sake of our entertainment and especially for the sake of telling the story of Christmas.
They were wonderful exactly because of their amateurish character. In these days of slick production values and hyper-critical “make sure it’s quality stuff” church audiences, it’s refreshing to remember the sincerity and maybe even integrity of those cheesy performances.
But the main reason they were wonderful is in the point that was made: the Christmas Story is our story. The epiphany in those plays had to do with the fact that the Christ who came at Christmas comes into our run of the mill lives in our run of the mill world and changes things—he changes us. Yes, he came to the manger and was visited by shepherds; yes, angels announced his coming; yes, something marvelous and miraculous happened all those years ago.
Just as much of a miracle, though, is that it still happens now.
And that’s what those awfully terrific and terrifically awful Christmas plays taught me.