The fierce competition and high cost of children's Christmas pageants.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 23 2008 7:00 AM

Bethlehem Does Broadway

The fierce competition and high cost of children's Christmas pageants.

Traditional Nativity. Click image to enlarge.
Nativity scene

Few Christmas traditions are as well-loved among Christians as the annual children's pageant. Countless Marys, Josephs, shepherds, angels, donkeys, and assorted other biblical and not-so-biblical fauna have been preparing for weeks—sometimes months—to dramatize a story that inspires feelings of peace and goodwill.

But, particularly in wealthier churches, what goes on behind the scenes isn't always quite so bucolic. Trying to keep the show civil and on-message can sometimes lead to compromises at once ridiculous and profound.

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Often, one of the biggest struggles of the pageant season is fierce, parent-driven competition over parts. It doesn't help when roles like the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel are thought to be valuable padding for a college résumé—a great part demonstrates an interest in the theater and church!—making for a tense atmosphere at auditions if unchecked by ministers and pageant leaders. One strategy here, as elsewhere in this hectic season, is simple avoidance. The education director at First Lutheran Church in Chapel Hill, N.C., has kids show up the morning of the pageant dressed as whatever character in the Nativity story they choose. Of course, she has to be prepared for that chorus line of Virgin Marys—depending on your view of the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Joseph at First Lutheran was either very happy or very frustrated when 16 Virgin Marys showed up one year. Occasionally, unscripted characters not found in the Gospels' telling of the Christmas story appear—gladiators or a combined angel-shepherd-king that she had difficulty placing. But such hassles are nothing compared with telling a girl she's not going to be Mary.

Other churches find different ways around the competition. A minister who oversees the annual pageant at a large church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan told me that her church used to give the role of Virgin Mary to the daughter of that year's highest donor. But, she hastened to add, they stopped doing that when competition among the parents started to sour the mood. Sometimes, just showing up is the best way to secure a plum role. Emily Given is the former director of children's ministries at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in well-heeled Darien, Conn., where, as she put it, "you're waiting in line for Mary since you were baptized." Rather than holding auditions or checking donation records, she bases her decision on church attendance. "It really came down to who was there, to who really made a longtime, deeper commitment. You might be beautiful and look just like what Mary looked like—whatever that means—but if you weren't here, you missed the boat."

Another strategy is to try to make other parts more appealing so kids are less devastated when they don't get parts they want. Given created "assistant stage manager" roles, popular since these kids get to wear headset microphones "like the clergy [at her church] normally wear."

In my former church, Grace Church in New York, where the pageant packs in more than 1,000 people on Christmas Eve, sartorially inclined kids with lesser roles could find solace in the really nice costumes—like shepherds' robes sewn from a large donation of high-end fabric from Kate Spade.