Christmas Columns Past #1

TALKING TO MYSELF - December, 2015: This week and next, I am posting some of my old Christmas columns here on the blog (in case you missed them the first time around or might enjoy them again.) The first is "Shepherds in Bathrobes." 

 Shepherds in Bathrobes

When I was a child, I thought the Three Wise Men and the Shepherds really had worn bathrobes and black socks when they came to adore the Christ Child.  This was the way they were always dressed in the Christmas pageant at our church, and I assumed the costuming was historically accurate.  I wasn’t quite sure why biblical men had wrapped terrycloth towels around their heads, but since Christmas is often cold in Kentucky, I figured they probably wanted to keep their baldheads warm.

Our tiny Methodist church thought big, and we staged an elaborate re-enactment of the Christmas story every year (although the director made an annual announcement that she would never do this again.)  To pull this off, everyone in the congregation was drafted into service.  Even the youngest served as stable animals and the most elderly turned the light switches on and off at critical moments.  Were it not for the kindness of the Baptists across the road, we would have played to empty pews.  We cast them as the audience, and they obliged by dismissing their Sunday night service to help us ou

I can still recall the angels’ wings.  They were shaped out of baling wire from the hayfield, and then were covered from span to span with multiple layers of ivory crepe paper.  A creative, genial woman, who died much too young, tediously shaped the overlapping layers of fragile paper into thousands of feather-like ruffles.  The wings were magnificent, and I’m pretty sure God added Margaret Carr’s design to his pattern book.  

Our choir of angels who sang on high was small, but their voices were fine and pure and covered every part.  Mr. and Mrs. Bell could not be equaled at bass and alto, Cousin May hit the soprano notes with the skill of a trained opera singer, Bill (who later became a Baptist but got his start in the Methodist choir) sang a fine tenor, and his future wife Faye handled the keyboard with skill.  There were a few other angels, too, even me, but mostly we only hummed

Mrs. P. was the perennial director and in real life, she was a fifth grade schoolteacher accustomed to being obeyed.  Every year, about halfway through the month of rehearsals, she would have a mild breakdown, alternately crying and yelling, because no one was listening to her.  Once she spoke sharply to a Wise Man who’d been hastily recruited to fill a bathrobe from the ranks of loitering boyfriends hanging around the Methodist Youth Fellowship.  Admittedly, he was flirting when he should have been following yonder star, but he was so taken aback at being reprimanded that he vowed never to darken the door of a church again.  I hope he didn’t keep that vow – I’d hate to think our Christmas pageant sent him straight to Hell.

Years later, though, whenever I found myself standing in the midst of pandemonium trying to lead people who did not want to be led (have you ever tried to build gingerbread houses with twenty Brownie Girl Scouts in a small room?) I would think about Mrs. P. and carry on for her sake.  I wish I’d told her when I could how much the pageants meant to me.  One memory, in particular, remains vivid

Our Shepherds were no nonsense farmers, recruited from the Adult Men’s Sunday School Class.   I can only imagine how their Christian faith was tested when they were asked to don ridiculous looking bathrobes in public, wrap towels around their heads, and come to play practice every Sunday afternoon.  To compound their stage misery, one year Mrs. P. surprised the Shepherds at our first rehearsal by altering their perennial silent tableau.  This Christmas the Shepherds would have lines to recite, she said.  Then, she instructed the Shepherds to move forward one by one and read their assigned paragraphs.

When Shepherd Number Two was called upon, he gamely stepped up.  He read the first word “the” but then stopped.  He looked at the floor.  He cleared his throat.  In an instant, I understood.  Shepherd Number Two could not read, at least not well.  He was one of the most honorable, pleasant men I’ve ever met, hardworking and capable, too.  I’m sure that in today’s schools he would have been diagnosed with dyslexia or some other synapse glitch that made reading more difficult for him than for others.  But in that awful moment, he stood mute on the altar of the churc

That’s when the good thing happened.  Without a look passing between them, the other Shepherds began to read the lines for him, their tongues turned to silver, and then they seamlessly moved on to their own.  The Wise Men joined in too.  I’ve never heard a choral reading more deftly  executed.  The powerful rhythm of their conjoined voices erased all embarrassment, and we went on to have the best rehearsal we ever had.  By the next Sunday, Shepherd Number Two had memorized his lines, and the incident was never spoken of.

So it came to pass that I learned the true meaning of Christmas from farmers wearing bathrobes and towels on their heads.  Whenever I find myself uncertain of my performance in life, I think about those good men – unsure of themselves, too, but unafraid to look ridiculous in the trying.    



– excerpt from You Can Go Anywhere