Feet dangling in patent-leather, I sat on the polished pew while the Christmas pageant director assigned parts. I held my breath, waiting as she called names. I dreaded this moment, for I knew I’d be instructed to serve as a sheep or cow. Each year, the director would assure us that those lowing, humble barn-dwellers were “important” pieces of the story.
I didn’t buy it. I wanted to be Mary.
As I grew older, I was upgraded from beast to human. In this more esteemed role, I had the opportunity to deliver real lines, beyond the scripted moo-ing. We didn’t have enough boys in church to fill all the male roles, so I regularly stood in as a king or a shepherd, wearing an itchy gunny sack. One year, I did get to wear white wings, proclaiming into the church microphone: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people!”
But even as an angel of the Lord Most High, I secretly pined to be tapped as Mary, Mother of God. This was every Sunday School girl’s dream. Each year, the highly favored one would ride down the red-carpeted aisle on a cardboard donkey. She wore a flowing gown, which the director ceremoniously retrieved from the church’s costume vault only once a year. Mary never had lines to memorize. Her only job was to look good.
Each year, Mary seemed to glow, outshining even the glittery star overhead. She radiated in that magical moment when, at the end of the play, everyone in the pews would rise up, gripping candles, to sing “Silent Night” in a circle.
I watched Mary as I mouthed the words to the song. She sat center-stage by the wooden communion rail, while gazing upon the babe in arms. Some years, we had a real-live baby as our Jesus. Mostly, though, we used a doll from the nursery toy-bin. We wrapped it in swaddling clothes — threadbare dishtowels from the church-basement kitchen.
Often, a pretty blonde was christened as Mary. Even at a young age, I knew this was historically inaccurate. But no one seemed to mind in our town, where Swedish descendants bore names like Larson and Anderson. Mary usually matched our toy-box Jesus — a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl doll with magic marker drawn on the back of her head.
Then, behold, in 1982, the heavens opened, and I witnessed my very own Christmas miracle: I was called forth from the pew.
“Jennifer?” she asked. “Would you be willing to serve as our Mary this year?”
I nodded a shy yes, but on the inside, I belted out the Magnificat.
I remember it still, draping a white cloth around my brunette head, then walking down the aisle of my dimly-lit church. I remember cradling the baby in swaddling dishtowels, and hearing everyone laugh when one of the wee kings in a cardboard crown shouted out: “Hi, Mom!” A shepherd stretched out on the step for a long winter’s rest. Beside me, the cattle were lowing and adjusting brown-felt ears. And behind me, I sensed a great company of the heavenly host—all dressed in holey bed sheets. Or maybe they were holy.
Then came the moment for the final number, the hallowed singing of “Silent Night.” A great hush fell over the room, as the congregants rose to their feet and lit candles by passing a flame around the circle.
The pianist began, then voices rose in unison:
Round ‘yon virgin, Mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
And that’s when it happened. At the front of a tiny Iowa church — where I sat in a sheet-covered folding chair — Mary’s story was becoming my own. I looked at the cradled babe, with bits of hay snared in blonde locks. I was beginning to realize, right then, who the real star of this Christmas show was.
I turned my head a bit, bowing my chin lower as voices swelled higher. I hoped no one would notice a single tear sliding down my cheek. I — the holder of the Christ-child — was discovering what those words in the story meant, about a young girl treasuring up all these things, and pondering them in her heart.