“Is that for the Christmas pageant?” Mr. Mulroney asked as I stuffed a six-foot artificial Christmas tree into the passenger seat of our VW bug.
“No,” I answered. “It’s just a little something to dress up my cubicle at school.”
“Well,” our neighbor continued, “you can’t get started too early when it comes to the pageant. No siree! Not when it comes to the pageant.”
The event to which Mr. Mulroney was referring was our congregation’s annual potluck dinner—complete with a visit from Santa Claus, holiday carols, and the ever-favorite nativity play performed by the Sunday school children.
Later that day, as I mentioned the upcoming gathering to my wife, Louise, we both spoke of how enjoyable the pageant had been over the years. Then we quickly added: “Hopefully we’ll be assigned to do something simple—like bake a pie.”
Just then the phone rang.
“But we don’t have money to pay for any incidental expenses that might arise if we take charge of the pageant,” I pled to our pastor. “Plus, I’m in the final stages of graduate school. Louise and I don’t have time to be in charge of an entire Christmas program.”
Naturally, there was parish money set aside for the pageant’s expenses, so my poverty plea faded quickly and my complaint about not having time was . . . well, nobody ever has time to produce a holiday pageant, and yet somehow, we enjoy one every year.
“Actually, the job is easier than you might imagine,” the pastor explained. “You simply delegate the various activities to other congregants. You’re in the business school. You should know all about delegation. Right?”
“Alright,” I acquiesced, “but only under the following conditions. Louise and I will stay within the budget, and assign out all of the work . . . ”
“Joyful preparations,” the pastor corrected.
“We’ll assign out the ‘joyful preparations,’” I continued, “but only if we have total control. We don’t want to be second-guessed.”
“Right down to his last Ho! Ho! Ho!” The pastor agreed. The deal was sealed.
“Here’s our first decision,” Louise proclaimed. “It has to do with Saint Nick.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “There won’t be a Saint Nick at our gathering.”
“Bingo!” she responded. “We’ve had enough Santa calamities to last a lifetime.”
Louise was referring to a couple of recent holiday flops. One year, our pastor thought it would be clever if he himself played the Jolly Old Fellow, but he was so skinny that the pillows he stuffed under his crushed satin costume kept falling out. The overall effect was creepy. Young children cried as he approached them—one emaciated hand clenching a candy cane, the other holding tightly to his leaking torso.
The next year we reversed course by hiring a professional Santa Claus. Unfortunately, the guy was so serious about his craft that he insisted everyone remain absolutely silent as he delivered a lengthy lecture on the evils of consumerism. Eventually, the Old Elf chewed out the celebrants and left in a huff. Between these two events, I don’t know which left the children more scarred.
Since our pageant didn’t include Santa, we had time to add group singing and tree decorating to the program. A vocal orchestration grad student was assigned to lead the music and, as we had hoped, it went off flawlessly. The music was sublime. I can’t say the same for the tree decorating. It turns out (according to the decorators, at least) there are two kinds of Christmas tree aficionados: those who hang tinsel in orderly rows that show proper respect for the sacred holiday, and undisciplined heathens who carelessly hurl fistfuls of tinsel at the angel atop the tree. Let’s just say the activity was tense.
And then there was the nativity play. Screenwriters typically portray them as disasters by having either the bleachers collapse, or the kids fumble the script. The truth is, as the children (particularly the little ones) forget their lines, trip over their bathrobes, and knock down the set pieces, the pageant gets that much more adorable. I’m proud to say that ours was the most adorable ever.
My favorite part of the evening took place in plain sight, and yet (like many acts of kindness) it largely remained unseen. Louise and I had assigned the much-anticipated holiday meal to the Fishers—a grad student in physics, his wife, and their three children. We asked them to organize a pot-luck dinner (easy-peasy), plus they needed to buy a couple dozen precooked turkey breasts that would be the crown jewel of the feast.
In retrospect, the Fishers were probably an unwise choice. As poor as most of us congregants were, they were the poorest. Their view of what was supposed to be a lip-smacking turkey meal had been so distorted by years of going without that, even though they had a generous budget to work from, the Fishers purchased two dozen dirt-cheap, refrigerated, bologna-like concoctions that they thought were delicious and everyone else feared. As each pressed turkey breast was ceremoniously placed on the serving table by the Fishers, it jiggled, in true Christmas fashion, like a bowl full of jelly.
Before the crowd could pounce on the Fishers for choosing egregiously gelatinous, nearly translucent, pressed turkey parts that could be “carved” with a plastic spoon, Louise proclaimed, “Oh look, turkey aspic—just like the elegant food they eat in France. How chic!” From that point on Louise graciously shielded the Fishers from the disappointed crowd with her raw energy and optimistic talk of fancified French food.
Eventually, Louise found a way to set aside most of the untouched pressed turkey breasts and give them to the Fishers who had stayed behind to help with the cleanup. With a few subtle moves, and a well-chosen word or two, Louise had graciously and respectfully provided a needy family with food they were able to freeze and then consume over the entire next semester.
Three decades later when we ran into the Fishers at the local shopping mall, (quite by accident) our conversation quickly turned to that Christmas party. “I still remember all that turkey we were able to take home and freeze.” Pat Fisher enthused. “It was yummy and lasted us for months. It was literally an answer to our prayers.”
I later learned that Louise didn’t remember much about that meal. And why should she? Her handling of what could have been an embarrassing situation was so natural and selfless that it wasn’t something she’d recall, it was just something she did. And so it was with all the parishioners. From cleaning up the little shepherd who ate too much fudge, to learning that there wasn’t going to be a Santa Claus and not freaking out—everyone didn’t merely celebrate the holiday, they lived it. One tiny act at a time.
May your holiday season be similarly real. May you experience joy not only from, say, hosting a pageant, but also from enacting simple deeds of service that for years to come are likely to remain unseen in plain sight.
Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?
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