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Christmas pageant evolves but endures

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Clearly, the length of gold tinsel draped around her neck was not what Melinda Smith was hoping for. “Is this all I get?” she pleaded with Beth Keys, director of the annual interactive Christmas pageant at Portland’s Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. Keys disappeared and returned with a long, white gown, its collar […]

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Clearly, the length of gold tinsel draped around her neck was not what Melinda Smith was hoping for.

“Is this all I get?” she pleaded with Beth Keys, director of the annual interactive Christmas pageant at Portland’s Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst.

Keys disappeared and returned with a long, white gown, its collar ruffled, its sleeves long and sweeping.

Smith, 46, pulled the white gown over her head and draped the tinsel across one shoulder, as if she were a contestant in a beauty pageant. “Hey, I’m not just an angel,” she said with delight. “I’m a beauty queen angel.”

“You’re finally living it, Mom,” said her daughter, Leila Duntley, 13, while adjusting a homemade paper mustache. It’s the finishing touch she hoped would transform her from a teenager into a wise man. Or wise woman. Or wise person. Whatever.

One lucky wise woman will carry a dish of real frankincense, whose golden lumps release their fragrance when scratched. A table holds stuffed sheep for the shepherd and a few wooden staffs that once were broomsticks.

“Grown up Jesus” — Abby Winkler, 5, not to be mistaken for Baby Jesus, who’s asleep in a car seat — cuddles the littlest lamb before she drops it on the table when someone calls her name.

The traditional Christmas pageant has been reborn for many reasons: Smaller congregations that don’t have dozens of children to perform the roles; busy families that don’t have time to make costumes or attend endless rehearsals; audiences that aren’t enthralled by middle-school Marys and Josephs with the jitters.

Congregations that can, amp up the pageant with real animals and elaborate costumes. Others lower their expectations, encouraging all comers to reclaim the original meaning of the story.

In her 24 years on staff at Laurelhurst, Keys, director of youth and children’s ministries, has directed many a pageant. In the early years, the congregation cast children in every part. But six years ago, facing a smaller congregation heavy on adults, Keys decided to make the show intergenerational and spontaneous. Anyone who wants can have a role, and the whole congregation has a speaking part.

This year, the youngest player is Oliver Karmakar, Keys’ 9-month-old grandson, playing the staring role as the Baby Jesus. The oldest returning player is Jack Potts, 85, who this year plays a high priest questioned by Herod about where the king of the Jews would be born.

High priests are often missing when it comes to Christmas pageants, and the magi, the wise men from the East, often show up with the shepherds, which is not how the Bible actually tells the story. But Keys — a teacher to the core — and a small committee rewrote the traditional story, keeping it as close to the scriptural account as possible, and feasible.

At 11 a.m., the Rev. Greg Ikehara-Martin greets the congregation. “Welcome to the pageant of the Lord’s birth,” he says. “It’s our annual everybody-has-a-part pageant. Remember, indeed, that everybody does have a part — that’s the truth of the Gospel.”

The show begins with the beauty pageant angel, Smith, visiting Mary to announce Jesus’ birth. Mary visits her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, who’s played by a woman with a pillow tucked under her robe.

The story proceeds with its familiar characters and events: The angel Gabriel appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph spend the night in a stable. Oliver’s real-life mother slips behind a patch of star-studded sky and hands the infant — wide awake and staring at the crowd — to Joseph.

As the shepherd, a stuffed sheep under each arm, hears of Jesus’ birth, Baby Jesus begins to cry. Joseph hands him off to Mary, but the child is restless. The congregation’s joyful singing of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” seems to scare him. Just then, a hand reaches from behind the sky to give the Baby Jesus a Cheerio. Alas, it doesn’t do the trick.

Flash forward a few years and the wise people show up, following the mustached magi, who’s carrying a silver urn of myrrh and pointing at the star. By now, the child is older. Grown Up Jesus sits quietly on his mother’s lap as the congregation sings, “We Three Kings.” The enthusiastic angel warns Joseph to flee to Egypt. “Go home a different way! Use a different route!” the congregation shouts in unison. “Don’t believe what Herod said!”

The pageant ends with the famous quotation from the prophet Isaiah, that the long anticipated child would be called “wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father and prince of peace.” The congregation erupts in “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

Baby Jesus is baby Oliver again, back in his mother’s arms. The rest of the cast returns to the classroom to take off their costumes and hit the cookie table. The remaining congregation members bow their heads as their pastor leads them in a closing prayer.

“We know this story,” Ikehara-Martin says. “We like to tell it. We have done this many times before … and the story unfolds a little differently every year.”

(Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)