Feature Column: Advent Anxiety – Memories from Long, Long Ago

By Patricia Chadwick

The annual Christmas Pageant at school was an event I looked forward to as a young child – but that anticipation was always tinged with a dose of apprehension because the role each of us would play in the pageant was determined by a contest that took place in the classroom.

There were anywhere from ten to twelve of us children in this annual competition which commenced with the onset of Advent. As you most likely know, the first Sunday of Advent is what is described as a “movable feast”, meaning that it can start on a different day each year, but Advent itself always ends on Christmas Eve. Depending on the start date, there can be as few as 22 days or as many as many as 28 in the season.

The Monday after that first Sunday of Advent was characterized by a ritual of sorts. Sitting at our desks, we watched as Sister Maria Crucis set up the props for the contest. First, she tied small white name tags around the necks of tiny white porcelain lambs, one for each child. She then lined them up in a row on the bottom step of a miniature cardboard set of 21 steps that led up to a cardboard temple at the top – well the front face of a temple. The complete model of the temple and steps was approximately 18 inches wide and rose vertically to 30 inches or so. An empty creche at the opening of the temple signified that Baby Jesus had not yet been born.

And so the contest began – five days a week for four weeks. At the end of each school day, there was a time of reckoning. While we sat in silence at our desks, with our hands folded in our laps, Sister Maria Crucis approached the cardboard model and determined which child’s lamb would move up one step (an indication of good behavior that day in the classroom) or would remain in place (if the child was lacking in some way). A particularly naughty child might even find that his or her lamb had been moved down a step and on rare occasions, a lamb might even move up two steps. If my lamb moved forward, I silently cheered, but often as not, I made no headway toward the temple. My embarrassment turned to inner rage. “She’s so unfair,” I’d mumble to myself.

The characters in the Christmas pageant had orders of importance: Mary and Joseph were, as one might expect, the most coveted positions. The first boy to reach the temple door was selected to portray Joseph and the first girl, Mary. Their costumes were fancy, or so they seemed to me. Mary wore a floor length soft blue dress and her head scarf was elaborately draped around her shoulders, in the manner of women in the Middle East. Joseph was garbed in a hooded brown velvet robe with a rope belt. He wore sandals and had a tall staff that he used as a walking stick. Mary and Joseph had center stage at the pageant – Mary, carrying a statue of Baby Jesus which she laid in the manger and Joseph acting as her beloved husband.

The character of the angels – there were two of them – was assigned to the little girls whose lambs had not reached the temple door but were the closest behind Mary and Joseph on the final day of the contest. Angels wore long white gowns on which were pinned a set of wings, so large that they required extra rehearsals to ensure an angel didn’t inadvertently stab a fellow angel with the pointed end of her wing. In the pageant, they stood prominently behind the Holy Family on the stage. Next in importance were the three kings – always boys – and their costumes bright colored capes, crowns on their heads and fancy boxes that were meant to be gifts for Baby Jesus.

The remaining three of four children, whose lambs made the least progress during Advent, were assigned to be shepherds – their outfits made from a scratchy burlap bag with a hole cut out of the top to get over their heads. They brought up the rear in the pageant procession, spreading out on assigned spots on the periphery of the stage.

I was only four years old the first year I remember participating in the pageant, and pictures prove that I was a shepherd. I don’t recollect being dismayed, maybe because I didn’t quite make the association between my role and my behavior, although I find that hard to believe. However, with each successive year, I became increasingly obsessed with my lamb’s daily journey up the steps because I was hell bent to be the first child to get to the temple door. I wanted – no, I needed – to play the exalted position as Mary, the Mother of God.

There were afternoons when the clang of the 3 o’clock bell that propelled the children into the yard for recess, found me hanging back. There, alone in the classroom, I would ponder the position of my lamb on the temple steps – Why is that the farther we get into Advent, the slower my lamb seems to move?

The cardboard model was pinned high enough up on the wall to make it impossible to reach, but that didn’t prevent me from contemplating how I might enhance my lamb’s relative position. Subterfuge, however, was fraught with danger – I could move a desk over to the score board, clamber onto it and, if I stood on my tiptoes, I was sure I could reach my lamb and inch it forward a step or two. But – and it was a serious but – would Sister Maria Crucis notice the change? She was meticulous about everything, to the point of taking notes when one of us broke a rule or spoke out of turn, so I suspected that she knew exactly where my lamb was on any day. Worse still, what if she were to walk into the classroom and catch me red-handed in the act of deception? I could only imagine the possible array of consequences.

So, I chickened out – or perhaps better put, I allowed my ego rather than my dignity to be sacrificed. For five years, to the best of my recollection, I suffered the humiliation of rising no higher than the rank of shepherd, by which time I graduated out of the Christmas pageant, in order to allow younger children to participate. The memory and the emotion remain seared in my mind.