Memoir: The Christmas Play

Maggie wrote about Christmas pageants earlier today, and Mary thought it might be a good idea to publish this story about my eighth grade Christmas play, from my yet-to-be completed book The John Section. Hope you like it!

Image by Elf-Moondance from Pixabay

It was always a tradition at St. Ignatius School that the Christmas pageant was done by the even-numbered grades, while the Spring pageant was performed by the odd-numbered grades. The Christmas play had a religious theme, as one would expect, while the Spring play was more of an operetta, complete with song and dance. Sister Anna Marie, the director of most of the music-related activities at St. Ignatius, would direct the Christmas play and the music for the Spring Pageant, the dancing for the latter under the direction of a Mrs. Wolff who had been around from the time that my aunts were in school at St. Ignatius.

This year would prove to be different, as it was decided that the Christmas play would be held under the direction of Mr. K, a theater major at Loyola University. During the rehearsals of the Christmas play, we were privileged to watch him in a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and it turns out he was not such a bad actor himself. He was somewhat theatrical, to put it mildly, which caused no end of snickering among all of us manly men of St. Ignatius, but he was fully intent on putting on a good show, and he could inspire us well enough to get that kind of a performance from us.

I landed the role of Balthazar in the play, and had one whole line to say, which took me all of about thirty seconds to learn: "And well ended, too! Hail Mary, full of grace!" It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, either, but that was the line I was to say. Victor, who was originally from Ecuador and who spoke English well (albeit with a heavy accent), grabbed the lion’s share of king’s lines as Gaspar, while Michael, who traveled to the North Side from Woodlawn every day, played Melchior. He got no lines (he had a monumental case of stage fright), but looked the best in the turban and flowing robes of a Magus, and it gave our Three Kings the distinction of being completely diverse.

Of course, there were other parts handed out. John C played St. Joseph, while Carla, who was head-over-heels in unrequited love with John, played Mary, the Mother of God. Keith, John S, and Joe played an innkeeper and a couple of merchants, while Greg, Eddie, and several of the younger participants played shepherds. The Christ Child was, as usual, played by a plastic doll.

It went unusually well, given that none of us were professionals and that we were thirteen and fourteen years old. Mr. K did what he could to get us to really act the parts instead of just going through the motions, and he was very successful. When it came time for knocking on the door, there was a liberal amount of pounding; when we were told to laugh, we did so with gusto; and when John C was told to gaze lovingly upon his wife and the Christ Child, Carla just gobbled it up.

The Christmas play was always done twice: once as a dress rehearsal in front of the school on the last Friday before Christmas break, and for the parents and families on the following Sunday. Naturally, we were fitted for costumes on the Thursday before (after all, what’s a dress rehearsal for? To get used to the costumes, of course), and, let’s face it, they looked pretty silly and were very uncomfortable.

The dress rehearsal progressed fairly well until the end. In the last scene of the play, the merchants and innkeeper were supposed to enter laughing, then become awestruck upon seeing the Christ Child. Our merchants and innkeeper really threw themselves into the "enter laughing" part, to the point that they couldn’t stop, and soon had the entire school rolling in the aisles. Mother Marcella, the diminutive (and very sick, as we learned later) principal of the school, put an immediate stop to that.

Then, it was time for the Magi to make their appearance on the scene. We did all right, considering the act we were following. Victor stumbled through his lines in his broken English, while Michael stared nervously at the crowd and I prepared for my one line in the play.

"Our journey was well begun," Victor said, placing the gold at the feet of the Child. My cue.

"And well ended too hail Mary full of grace." I placed the frankincense at the feet of the Christ Child and backed off. Michael came next and sort of dropped the myrrh bottle and stood there, frozen.

Mr. K came to me after the dress rehearsal and said, "you know, John" (it helps if you can imagine a short, slender man with a well trimmed beard and slight lisp, speaking with much ostinato and hand flourish) "I have never liked that line. Why don’t we try it without the ‘Hail Mary’ bit at the end?"

"And well ended, too," I said, trying to put as much life into it as I could, inwardly cursing him for cutting my lines.

"And well ENded, Toooo," he coached me.

"And well ENded, Toooo," I said, mocking him.

"No, no. A little less up and down. And well ENded, Tooo."

"And well ENded, Tooo."

"That’s it! just like that!" He patted my shoulder; I was tempted to brush it off. "See you Sunday."

Sunday arrived, and I just wanted to get it over with. I always hated the school plays, because it meant you had to go to school on a day when you didn’t usually have to, and it was a lot of "hurry up and wait." You were to be at the school an hour before the play started and in costume immediately upon arrival, and you weren’t allowed to talk or play cards or anything. You just had to sit there and wait for someone to come and get you. We Three Kings sat and waited for what seemed to be an eternity before following yonder star to the theater to do our bit.

"Our journey was well begun," Victor said.

"And well ended too," I replied. I laid the frankincense at the foot of the crib and turned around, right into Michael, who figured that there was more to the line than that. Victor was looking at me with that, "hey, stupid, say the rest of the line, would you?" look on his face. For my part, I nearly lapsed into the vernacular, but somehow held my tongue, and directed traffic back to where we were supposed to end up. Later, of course, I had to explain to Michael and Victor that I hadn’t forgotten my line, that it had been cut. That was the first they had heard of it.

When the play was over, Mr. K told us all that we were "fabulous." But of course!

15 thoughts on “Memoir: The Christmas Play

  1. I am so glad you were inspired to tell this story, John. It was fantastic! Now I need a photo of thirteen year old John to fully visualize the scene! These plays/pageants were a big part of our lives. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  2. Very funny. Love those school play deals! I was going to say that actually you had TWO lines, but that was before you were divested of the second. I like it better without. I once rewrote a version of Peter Pan we did in the spring such that my football player boyfriend played Tinkerbell in his (somewhat plumpish) sister’s tutu. The audience roared when they recognized him. We lowered him from the ceiling. He had this tutu on with work boots. Too funny. I changed all the lines to be funny. But I don’t remember any Christmas plays. Very cool.


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