Christmas Pageant

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(HOST) One of the staples of the season is the holiday pageant, and commentator Peter Gilbert says that’s one of his favorite holiday events.

(GILBERT) All Christmas pageants are wonderful: a great story, great music, little kids, and sometimes, real animals. How could they not be wonderful?

The annual children’s pageant at one church set amidst Vermont’s beautiful countryside distinguishes itself by being not in the church, but rather outside, typically in the snow. True, it starts in the handsome white clapboard church dating back to 1823, but soon the congregation files outside singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Dressed as angels, shepherds, wise men, Mary, and Joseph, the children lead them. As well they should.

In the yard two kids prop up a door. The sign says, “Welcome to the Inn.” But, of course, Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn, and they make their way toward the steps of the Parish House, where, this year, a two-month-old baby, wrapped not in swaddling clothes but in a snowsuit, is placed carefully in Mary’s lap. After hearing the baby cry in Mary’s arms, a child runs up to the minister and whispers, “I didn’t know Jesus was real!”

Young shepherds stand in the snow, each biding over a plywood sheep. They sing a song, and lay down to sleep, snowsuits under their costumes. Distracted, one eats fresh snow from a purple woolen mitten. They wake and follow yonder star toward the porch of the Parish House, where they find the manger.

The youngest children – three and four-years old – have undergone a costume change. Once angels, they’re now dressed as a pig, cow, sparrow, crow, sheep, drake, and minnow. Last year’s written program listed pageant participants, with the note, “The following children are angels when they are not animals.” The animals sing a little song about Christmas morning.

Amidst the cast of thousands are real animals: a heifer tries repeatedly to get onto the doorstep. Two goats, a sheep, and miniature pony chew peacefully on hay. One goat steps up on the hay bale that Mary is sitting against and carefully peers over her shoulder at Baby Jesus.

Three chickens strut about, chests puffed out proudly. One’s a Rhode Island Red, one a Barred Rock, and one an Araucana, which interestingly, are sometimes called Easter Eggers because of their blue eggs. The inadvertent reference to Easter makes me think of medieval paintings of the Nativity that often include a human skull or memento mori (a reminder of mortality) – to remind viewers, even as they celebrate Jesus’ birth, of their mortality and Jesus’ crucifixion.

The chickens are so theatrical, one person calls them equity chickens. Red bows around the heifer, goat, and sheep signify that similar animals are being donated to Heifer International. That makes them, I think, the real equity animals.

This is the best of Christmas for me, the best of Vermont, and the best of community. It is about meaning and connection, and, for children and audience alike, participation.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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