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Holiday Guide Feature

Rich Pageant

Bringing the Real Christmas Story to Dramatic Life

Holiday Guide 2000

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By Adele Marley | Posted 11/15/2000

You'd think it would be pretty hard to faze a seasoned performer like Malachi. The high-pitched squeals of anxious children clamoring to stroke him with sticky hands; the screech and shimmer of holiday fireworks; having to kneel to get through church archways not built to accommodate an 8-foot-tall camel--it's old hat to this Nativity-scene vet. But one thing does concern Laurie Hahn, co-proprietor of the Frederick County menagerie-for-hire firm Interactive Wildlife, and that's how her humped charge is going to react to what she calls "the spaceship."

Every holiday season, Dixie Stampede--Dolly Parton's chain of arena-sized dinner theaters--gives its regular floor show a rest and instead presents a Christmas pageant, two to six times daily for two months. After the elves hustle plates of pork loin and chicken to patrons but before Santa's arrival on his sleigh, the theater goes pitch black and a 40-foot-by-40-foot stage descends from the ceiling, four stories up, lit from below by swirling spotlights. Upon the plunging platform is the set for a re-enactment of the birth of Christ, manger and all.

The scene has a real Close Encounters feel to it, Hahn says, but the effect is likely to be lost on Malachi and the other Interactive Wildlife camels who will be waiting with the three wise men on the ground at the Myrtle Beach, S.C., Dixie Stampede for the space-age stage to come in for a landing.

So-called "living Nativities" make up the bulk of Interactive Wildlife's winter business ("In January, nothing," Hahn says of the company's other seasonal prospects), but it's not all Dolly-sponsored spectacle. In addition to their engagement in Myrtle Beach, some of the Thurmont-based firm's staff and animals will work closer-to-home, church-sponsored pageants, most of which are mounted for only a few nights prior to Dec. 25.

These modest productions may lack the glitz of Dixie Stampede's partial passion play, but they are eagerly anticipated and widely attended in their communities. John Taylor, a deacon at Inverness Presbyterian Church in Dundalk, says about 600 to 800 people are expected to take in Inverness' quickie "walk-through" Nativity (four scenes staged at separate stations along a path), and most "really aren't from the church." Shepherds guide spectators through the 15-minute performance, usually mounted in the church's parking lot. Taylor isn't surprised by the outside attendance; considering that an estimated 30,000 cars drive by Inverness' recently acquired Wise Avenue sanctuary daily, he notes, the spectacle is likely to attract the curious (jibing neatly with the church's evangelical mission).

Inverness started doing the living Nativity four years ago--modeling it on a similar production at Piney Grove Methodist Church in nearby Bowleys Quarters, where Taylor lives--and "each year that we have it, we usually get new people to come to the church," the deacon says. That aspect of the performance is particularly valuable this year as the church and its new neighbors get to know each other. But "the main positive thing," he says, "is that we're sharing the [gospel] with people who aren't necessarily churchgoers. That we're planting the seed is the main benefit." Has the endeavor been successful? "A lot of people have been blessed by it, I believe."

The staged-Nativity tradition dates back nearly eight centuries, says Donnalee Dox, an assistant professor of performance studies at Texas A&M University, who is contributing to an in-progress book about so-called "living displays" of all sorts. St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have staged the first re-enactment of Christ's birth in 1223. Church elders of the time disapproved of St. Francis' then-radical exhibition--they thought it pandered to the masses, Dox says--and the highly theatrical practice never completely caught on in Catholic parishes (go figure). Today most live Nativity plays tend to be sponsored by Protestant churches.

The Rev. Paul Richter, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in northern Baltimore County, says his church has a longstanding tradition of interpreting the gospel through dramaturgy. An Easter pageant has been part of the St. John's theatrical repertoire since the late '50s; the Christmas production was added about 25 years ago at the instigation of a former pastor, who feted guests at the inaugural performance with cups of hot chocolate served from the back of his station wagon. The occasion has evolved well beyond a Christ-centered tailgate party: The one-night-only performance is followed by a reception, and last year's was attended by some 500 people. "It's a community event," Richter says.

While such popularity is a blessing for the churches putting them on, it can mean sacrificing the unexpectedly intimate quality of the re-enactment, and the devotion it can inspire. One of a Nativity performance's most crucial elements is atmosphere, and there's something to be said for huddling with other ski-capped onlookers around a ramshackle barn to glimpse a princely baby doll wrapped in torn sheets. Maybe the girl playing Mary is some goofy teenager from the neighborhood who manages to flub both her lines; maybe the "star of Bethlehem" that's tacked to the manger roof--made of tinfoil and twinkling Christmas-tree lights--doesn't look quite so stellar up close. But it doesn't matter because you're focusing on the sensory experience: the inhibiting winter chill that nips at your flesh; the wafting scent of sweet hay and pungent manure that emanates from the makeshift stable; the darkness that cloaks the scene's amber glow; the meditative, swallowing silence that settles in between bursts of caroling and line readings.

It's a strangely earthy and peaceful experience, captivating despite the cold, discomfort, and trivial distractions--and very much in keeping with the tradition's earliest days. Texas A&M's Dox says St. Francis' 13th-century staging was intended to link Christian beliefs with human experience, and living Nativities can still serve to make the ethereal complexities of faith more tangible.

Another tradition that goes back to the beginning is the use of live animals in the performances. St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, included an ox and an ass in his first staging. It can add considerably to a production's cost (Interactive Wildlife charges up to $1,000 a night for its services) and logistical difficulty. (It can also be dangerous; in 1997 a camel was killed on a Kent Island roadway after bolting from a Nativity performance.) But bringing animals into the fold is considered one way to make the events of Christ's birth come alive for contemporary audiences.

Our Lady of Grace in Parkton uses calves, sheep, goats, and horses in its kid-targeted pageant, says Mike Bertling, the church's youth-ministry coordinator. The four-legged actors create some headaches (he has to assign manure watch to some hapless parishioner), but such attention to detail "brings it to life for the kids," he says. "It brings it into the present, instead of making it a thing of the past. It's all about authenticity."

And, as Dox points out, realism and authenticity are selling points for modern Nativity pageants--witness Interactive Wildlife's touting of its "historically correct" menagerie, which includes miniature zebu cattle, camels, Jacob's four-horned sheep (Jacob allegedly was the first shepherd to breed sheep for color), and Nubian goats. Or check out the no-frills production at Our Lady of Grace, where the manger is built by Boy Scouts using an intricate arrangement of boards and ropes. "There were no nails and hammers in Bethlehem," Bertling explains.

But Dox notes that the "realistic" imagery of many living Nativities isn't necessarily real--at least, it doesn't originate from the Bible, but rather from late-Medieval and Renaissance iconography.

"Invariably, people will say that the reason they put on live displays is to make the experience more real, but what I've found is that they're really talking about an emotional reality," she says. "There's are really two levels of reality there--the sanctity of the imagery, and the sanctity of the event. . . . There seems to be a need to physicalize it, to make it present." But while she acknowledges that, from a drama-critique standpoint, "it would be really easy to rip this kind of things to shreds," Dox says she has great sympathy for folks who express their spiritual believes theatrically, even if she does not necessarily share their religious fervor. The impulse to "arrange, present, and make tangible a system of beliefs," she says, is universal.

"At whatever level--whether you believe in karma or you believe in grace--you've defined a way of seeing the world and understanding the world," Dox says. "It allows you to think beyond the material."

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