Christmas is a mixed bag with me – it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. We Catholics anticipate Christmas all the year. While Easter is a downer (the King is dead, long live the King…) Christmas is all about a babe in a manger, shepherds guarding their sheep, three kings bearing gifts, a poor man, a donkey, and the Virgin Mary. As a little kid, I had fantasies about being the Virgin Mary. She was so kind and accepting, so solemn and calm. In none of the statues or paintings or drawings of her, does she have any expression except tranquility. (Lightyears away from my character – but there you go – we all want what we can’t have.) I imagined myself as Mary during the Christmas pageant – after all, our church had a Christmas pageant, right? Not at first – they didn’t even sing at first; this was the hard, Puritan, New England Catholic church, built of invincible gray granite, no fancy trim, not even any singing or choir. But that year, a new priest declared it “the year of the pageant” and it included all the kids in Sunday school, even me, even though I’d been kicked out. But I had dispensation because as a Catholic child, I – along with a handful of other Catholic children going to the local public school – was bussed to the church on Wednesday afternoons (missing study hour) to confess and save my mortal soul. So I was excited. For the first time ever, I would try out for the part of the Virgin Mary.
On the day of the try outs, it became obvious the the words ‘try outs’ were misleading. We arrived, stood in line, and the priest and his accolytes moved down the line pointing. To the boys it went: “King, angel, shepherd, king, Joseph, shepherd, king, cow, donkey.” To the girls it was: “Angel, angel, angel, Mary, angel, angel, sheep, sheep, sheep.”
I felt sorry for the cow and donkey – then I was declared a sheep. I wasn’t even an angel. I would have nothing but ‘baaaa’ to say and wear a white fluffly sweater, a knit hat with ears, and sit quietly in the background imitating a sheep. The animals were taken to a small room for our costume fitting (the cow was a brown coat, a hat vaguely reminiscent of a Viking helmet, and a cowbell. The donkey was a gray blanket and a paper mâché head with huge doney ears made out of cardboard. The sheep were, as I said, white fluffy sweaters and knit caps with little ears. It soon became obvious that the animal kingdom included the trouble-makers. The new priest must have been informed by the sisters which of us were best left in the background. But this cowed us – including the cow. We were oddly silent as we sat on our folding chairs, our costumes on our laps. Each of us had secretly been hoping for the starring role – Mary, Joseph or a king, or even better, an angel (who wouldn’t want a pair of wings and a supercilious expression to wear?)
We spent the remaining half hour plotting ways to increase our visibility with the crowd – the donkey considered ways of moving its ears (and maybe taking a shit – I won’t lie – we were the Sunday school dropouts) and the cow and sheep all just sat and sulked. And then one of the nuns poked her head in the door and said the bus was here, to leave our costumes on our chairs, and to remember that we had to come to each rehersal, because if one of the main characters or angels (God forbid) got sick, we would have the honor of replacing them. Is it unchristian to wish the angels catch the flu?
I longed to resemble the Virgin Mary. I loved her blue robes, her narrow hands, her smooth face devoid of expression. Not a line, not a wrinkle marred that perfect brow. She was the original botox beauty.
The girl chosen to portray the Virgin Mary was a lovely girl with long, dark brown hair and perfect manners. She was also head of the class, her father was a doctor, and I used to copy all her papers when I was in first grade, so she stayed as far away from me as possible. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t count all the fish in the bowl and circle the number ‘4’ – it was just that I’d daydream so much that the teacher would call time before I’d even started. So I’d peer at this girl’s paper and quick copy all the numbers, knowing she had carefully counted and gotten everything just perfect. Since I had the conviction that these worksheets were just a way to keep us quiet while the teacher read her Reader’s Digest in peace, I had no qualms…until I got caught. When I got caught, the teacher made me admit what I’d done in front of the class, then apologise to the girl whose paper I’d copied, which convinced her I was most likely a serial killer in training. It didn’t help that she’d been in her father’s office the day my mother had brought me in with an ear-ache. The doctor took one look at my ear and reached for his syringue. “A shot of antibiotics will clear that right up”, he said. I was off the table and out of the window like a shot, dashing across the porch, leaping down the steps, and sprinting across the lawn, screaming that he’d have to catch me first.
So, the first day of rehersal, the Virgin Mary took one look at me, dressed in my sheep costume, and visibly paled. “She can’t sit behind me,” she said to the Sister. The Sister, who knew me, nodded and put me on the other side of the stage, nearest the donkey and the Shepherd with a crook (Hit her if she moves an inch), next to the far wall, and under the spotlight (it wasn’t shining on me, but I looked up, and there it was – the spotlight that represented the The Star of Bethlehem). That first day of rehersal, everyone was handed their lines (except the animals. We had no lines to speak. According to the Catholic church, animals don’t even have souls, so believe me when I say that we sheep, ass, and cow were the lowest of the low on the pageant ladder.) We were expected to sit quietly, nodding our heads was the most we were permitted to do – and not a sound should we make. I was a sheep. It wasn’t that bad – a little hot, a little itchy, but bearable. The cow rested his head on his hands and dozed, and the donkey, hidden behind his paper-mache mask, was unscrutable. But before he’d put on his mask, I’d seen he’d sported a bruise on his face. I sidled up to him and poked him with my foot. “What happened?” I whispered. He swung his head sideways and shrugged. “When my dad heard I was to be the ass for the pageant, he got mad.”
I knew his father. They were our closest neighbors. The five kids lived in an old house just down the dirt road from us. They had chickens in the backyard, and an old washer-wringer. The children helped their mother cook and clean. The father worked all day, and came home, and when he came home, he terrified his family. Sometimes I’d be over there playing when the car drove up. When that happened, the board game was shoved under the couch, the kids all leapt up and ran to their rooms, and I hied out the back door, across their back garden, and headed home before he saw me. The mother regularly sported a black eye or split lip. The kids were often limping or holding sore arms. That family was a reminder that, no matter how bad things were – they could always be worse.
The pageant was to take place during regular Sunday service, and if everything went well, for midnight mass. The priest was giving us a test – and of course, I failed. It was my fault. The Star of Bethlehem, like I said before, was a spotlight. I was sitting next to the wall it hung upon. The wire ran down the wall, and the plug was within reach. Just as the shepherd started talking about the star, I reached over and unplugged it. Then I looked up and gave my best “Baaaaaa”. Inspired, I added, “Baaaaad sheep.”
Someone tittered in the congregation. The priest glared at me. The shepherd nearest me pushed me aside and plugged in the light. Plugging it in and out must have strained the bulb, because it popped – with a huge “Bang” and a shower of sparks.
The donkey, cow, and sheep exited stage left, while the shepherds, angels, and three kings ran to the right. Joseph and the Virgin Mary ducked under the pulpit, and a huge spark landed in the manger, where a doll, dressed in swaddling clothes, lay in the straw. The straw caught fire.
And that was the end of the Christmas pageant. That was the end of my career as a sheep. That was the end, actually, of my trips on the bus to the church on Wednesdays, as the priest told me there wasn’t any use of me confessing anymore. And anyhow, two months later, we moved (again- I was always moving) and I never saw that school, bus, or church again.
But be of good cheer. Years later – years and years later, my 3 yr old son had an earache. We were visiting friends, and they sent us to the nearest clinic. At the clinic, the doctor who took care of my son looked at me and frowned. Then he started to smile. “Remember me?” he asked. “I was the ass in the Christmas pageant.”
(first published December 2018)