Every day we trouped down to the school basement to sing patriotic songs and seasonal tunes for the music class there. I liked this more than anything. Whereas the year before I was making myself sick so I would not have to attend school, in the fifth grade I was reluctant to miss school. This was especially so as we rehearsed for the annual Christmas pageant.
We were to perform a musical play, a perfectly smarmy, overly sentimental story about an orphanage at Christmas time. Although eight grades were housed in the Elementary School building, the seventh and eighth grades were considered Junior High, so they did not participate in the school play. The sixth grade got all the speaking parts of this play. The other five classes were expected to enter at appropriate times and gather on stage risers where we would sing in an increasing chorus. At the end of the play we were all to look upon the tear-jerking final scene and sing the final songs together.
The younger kids in the first through third grades stood on risers at Stage Right. They sang the standard Jingle Bells and other seasonal songs. The fourth and fifth grades had jobs to do. In class we were to decorate representations of our roles to hold on the Stage Left risers. The fifth grade was divided into two parts. Half of us were Packages, and the other half were Ornaments. I still remember most of the words, for some reason. My friends and neighbors Bruce and Pam were among the packages, which were big sheets of cardboard covered in colored bulletin board paper from the school office. The students cut out bows from construction paper and decorated it all with glue and glitter. They were to march out in a straight row from the wings and swing their faux gifts from side to side, singing:
“Packages! Packages! Bright and shiny packages! / Goodness knows, no one knows, what is in the packages!”
Well, it wasn’t George M. Cohen, but we thought it was.
Pam was selected to sing a solo, which would have made me jealous if I had not had a girl crush on her. When the singing was done, they marched to the left side risers, mounted the squeaky shaky steps, and waited for the next group to perform.
Ah, time at last for the Ornaments, my group! I auditioned my heart out but the solo went to a boy with a rather flat voice and a surly attitude named Brian. I was to carry out a large circular purple ornament that covered me from knee to chin. I glued glitter all over it and dutifully stood in the row with the other Ornaments and sang.
“Now we will hang our ornaments…” Alas, I cannot recall the entire opening verse. It was forty years ago and the play isn’t exactly doing a road show tour, okay? I do remember Brian’s solo and the final verse, however.
“Empty Christmas trees would look so very bare / So we will take our ornaments and hang them everywhere / A star to make a crown and tinsel all around / Our Christmas tree will be the best that can be found”
At which point Brian took a step back to join us dancing ornaments as we all sang,
“Tossing tinsel in the air, bells and candles gay / Bright shiny toys and candy canes making a grand array / Oh it’s such fun for everyone trimming the Christmas tree / Santa Claus will be here soon with gifts for you and me.”
We took our places on the risers and looked on and sang as the play continued. Basically it was set in an orphanage, about a boy who was supposed to be adopted by a family who wasn’t. After wishing for Santa to bring him parents, Santa appears and makes everything all right. The kid’s happy, the new parents are happy, the orphans and ‘adults’ and packages and ornaments and whatever the fourth grade were (toys I think), were all happy. End of show.
We performed for the high school. During my grand two minutes in the footlights, my High Schooler sister Ginny elbowed her friends and saw, “That purple ornament is my kid sister!” I got a big applause from friends of the family at the end of that performance. Man, that made all the hard work worth it for me. My adored sister Ginny approved of something I did, and I was thrilled to pieces for the opportunity to get her attention even if only for a little while. Mama attended the night performance and said I looked bright and glittery on stage, and that sealed the deal on my year.
It made enough of an impression on me that I remember lyrics to an obscure Christmas play forty years later.
Sixth grade found me an awkward child. I stayed near the top row of the class, doing pretty well in school but not a straight-A student. I was not a C student either; C level grades were not allowed in the Watson family and I did not want to be the one who brought shame to the family.
Each classroom had its own sets of lockers and since we never had to leave the classroom, I never had the problem of being late for class over a jammed locker. The sixth grade ruled the playground. We were the lords of the lower grades, at least unless the seventh and eighth grade were in the halls. They were Soooo much older than we were and even attended a class at the High School! God, they were practically grown. We had so much to look forward to in Junior High!
That Christmas the music teacher found a new concept for the annual Christmas Play in which the story of the Nativity was told with an accompanying choir. The entire grade school from sixth grade on down were to stand on risers running below the width of the stage in front. The teacher chose singers from every grade, and every class got to audition for those coveted solo spots. Only the sixth graders were eligible to be in the scenes on stage, and not everyone in the sixth grade would get a part.
Perhaps it was because I had dark hair and dark eyes that I was selected to play the Virgin Mary, or maybe it was the perfect opportunity to shut me up and keep me still for an hour, I don’t know. The story of Jesus was told in a series of tableau scenes in which we were required to stand perfectly still as long as the curtain was open. Scenes included the journey to Bethlehem, the inn, the stable interior, and the apron of the stage in front of the curtain was where the shepherds and the Three Wise Men were introduced. By the end of the show the curtains were fully pulled back so every cast member could fit on stage with their plywood co-stars. For every scene, the grade school choir sang an appropriate Christmas song. Talented artists in town helped paint the scenery and the plywood animals that would pose with us.
The part of Baby Jesus was portrayed by a 100-watt bulb, tucked inside a display infant.
The teachers all voted on who was given the roles. My Joseph was a quiet boy named Lowell. He and I proved to be quite capable of standing still, and it was a playful but unspoken contest to see who could stand the best. For some reason, one of the most difficult boys in the class was chosen to be the innkeeper. I supposed the teachers believed giving Jimmy O some responsibility would straighten him up, but they bet on the wrong pony. That little towheaded hellion sneaked cigarettes out of his daddy’s pack of Marlboroughs and smoked during recess in an effort to act cool. He started sneaking them in the auditorium wings too and somehow managed to set the manger on fire during rehearsal one day. To his credit he got a school fire extinguisher and put it out, and the teachers all vowed how brave and resourceful he was! They had no idea he was the firebug.
“Look at that,” Lowell muttered under his breath, “he nearly burns the place down and all they can say is ‘you’re our hero, Jimmy.’” Of course every kid in the cast knew the truth behind Jimmy’s Heroic Moment but none of us snitched on him.
Our production was so successful, the school used the same play and materials for the next four years. After all, not every 6th grade innkeeper sets his own mangers on fire with sneaked cigarettes every year. Jimmy managed to set the kind of high mark no other kid could match, or wanted to. Kids vied hard for those coveted solo spots and it was a Very Big Deal in a small town like Depew. Everyone in town attended whether they had a kid in grade school or not. It was a town event and no one wanted to miss it.
Schools don’t have those kinds of annual productions any more. In a way that’s fine, because we are a diverse country that began with the guarantee that everyone would be free to follow his or her own religion, and not every citizen believes exactly like his neighbor. Back in my childhood days our small town was filled with Christian churches so it was simply assumed everyone was Christian or at least wouldn’t mind taking part in the school pageant.
It’s kind of sad though because today’s kids will never know the thrills and minor anxieties associated with Annual Christmas Plays – when are auditions? What songs will be sung, which can I sing the best? Or can I be in a duet or trio? Am I Wise Man material, or a shepherd? Do I dare dream of the coveted role of Mary (or Joseph?)
Is the manger flammable?