Once again it’s here. Time for the last column. Of the year, at least.
And, though I didn’t do so last year, typically I in essence reprint a column I first wrote many, many years ago. One about winter holiday programs. Once called Christmas pageants.
I reflect on John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” In which an annual Christmas play was directed by Rev. and Mrs. Wiggin. It featured little kids “disguised as turtledoves.” Wearing costumes “so absurd that no one knew what these children were supposed to be.” They looked like “science-fiction angels, spectacular life-forms from another galaxy, as if … the Holy Nativity had been attended by beings from faraway planets.”
A la “Away in a Manger,” Mrs. Wiggin insisted that Baby Jesus not cry. At all. To accomplish this, she had “dozens of babies backstage [and] the Christ Child was whisked from the manger at the first unholy croak or gurgle” and replaced with a substitute. It bothered the protagonist that “the prettiest girl” in the class was always chosen to play Mary. “WHAT DOES PRETTY HAVE TO DO WITH IT?” Owen Meany asks. (Owen’s portion of the novel’s dialogue is rendered in upper case letters, signifying his “wrecked voice.”)
I recount how, at the age of 32, I played Joseph opposite a pretty girl. With whom I’m celebrating 42 years of marriage this month. Our four-month-old had been asked to play the Baby Jesus, so they let us play his mom and step-dad. Our three-year-old, dressed as an angel, was to stand with us.
At a certain point in the program, a dozen teenaged angels danced to a carol as we stood there in awe—Mary and Joseph marveling at this reformed Presbyterian dance routine. Which seemed to include a tiny angel bringing up the rear— skipping and whirling as the spirit moved her, quite out of sync with the others. But wait! Wasn’t that our daughter? So busy had we been keeping Baby Jesus quiet that we’d let the littlest angel slip away from us.
And those memories lead to Dr. William Muehl, former Yale Divinity professor. He and and his wife were at a nursery-school Christmas program that cast three Virgin Marys and two Josephs. Because that was how many costumes the school had. The Holy Quintet were attended by 20 angels in diaphanous gowns with large wings of gauze. Later this group would be joined by 20 shepherds—boys in burlap sacks, “clutching an assortment of saplings which purported to be crooks.” The boys’ stage entrance led to an “unfortunate discovery.”
To be sure of “a pleasantly-balanced array,” the director had made chalk circles for the angels to stand on and crosses for the shepherds. This had been done when the kids were in their shorts, skirts, and jeans. The angels in their flowing robes covered not only their circles, but the nearby crosses, too. Quoting Dr. Muehl:
“The shepherds began looking for their places. Angels were treated as they had never been treated before. And at last, one little boy who had suffered through as much of this nonsense as he could handle, turned to where the teacher in charge was quietly going mad, and announced angrily: ‘These damn angels are fouling up the whole show! They’ve hidden all the crosses.’ Needless to say, his mother and I were deeply embarrassed.”
Happy New Year!
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.