Mia Wood and Andrew Roche walked slowly in front of the altar at Saint Joseph’s Church in Scotia.
As Mary and Joseph, central characters in the first Christmas Eve, they were looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem. The baby Jesus would soon be born.
Mia, a 7-year-old from Glenville, and Andrew, a 10-year-old who lives in Scotia, practiced their lines by speaking into the altar microphone. Morgan Westbrook, a tiny blonde, was part of the entourage. The 5-year-old did not speak and traveled on her knees — as the donkey of Mary and Joseph, Morgan knew silence was important.
Cute and earnest
Christians in the Capital Region celebrate Christmas this week and many churches will put children in the spotlight. They will be cute and earnest, dressed in the robes of Mary and Joseph, the whites and golds of angels, the browns and pinks of cows and pigs. Pageants held during December and Christmas Eve services are popular with both children and the adults who will watch their plays with teary-eyed, sentimental smiles.
Michelle Preston, who has been rehearsing the Saint Joseph’s kids with her sister, Jennifer Konik, and church music director Linda Jones, said young actors began learning their roles after Thanksgiving. “Anyone is welcome,” she said. “We never turn anyone away.”
There’s always interest in the eight-minute play, which will take place at the Catholic church’s 6 p.m. service on Monday.
“The children who want to have a speaking part will kind of audition,” Preston said. “Those who speak clearly are usually the ones who get the bigger roles.”
At a recent rehearsal, Jones coached Mia and Andrew to stand on the sides of the church altar microphone. She wanted the kids to break a habit: When Mia spoke, Andrew retreated behind her; when Andrew spoke, Mia darted in back of him and the microphone.
Working on songs
The kids practiced songs, like “Joy to the World.” Maya Westbrook, 7, a small blonde from Glenville who will play the Angel of the Lord, practiced her solo: “Silent Night.”
“Would you like to do it with the piano or without the piano?” Jones asked.
“I could do it with the piano,” Maya answered, and proceeded to sing a single, clear verse.
“Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” Jones said.
“The little kids are angels,” Preston said. “This year, we only have three. There are some years we’ve had 20.”
By playing angels, shepherds, innkeepers and farm animals, Preston said, elementary and middle-school kids can better learn the meaning of the Christmas story. “I think it also gives them great confidence to be able to stand in front of a large group of people and speak.”
Jillian Konik, 7, of Burnt Hills is already a veteran of the St. Joseph’s show. She has played an angel, camel, sheep and shepherd, and this week will dress as a cow. “We repeat what Mary and Joseph did,” Jillian said. “They walked.”
Olivia Preston, 12, Michelle’s daughter, is one of three narrators in this year’s pageant. “I like it because it’s fun and you can see people you haven’t seen in a while,” she said, alluding to the multischool cast. “And I like the songs.”
At St. Luke’s in Schenectady, young actors got some help from dads in the parish who play the Three Wise Mmen.
Hope French, who directs the Christmas Eve pageant with Marcy Marzloff, said her troupe usually is nervous before the performance. “I look at every single one of them and tell them they can do this, and I believe in them and I’m proud of them,” she said. “It’s like an instant click with them, and there are instant smiles.”
Pastors appreciate the pageants.
“It fits into the Reformed understanding of the priesthood of all believers that God uses ordinary people to accomplish his purposes,” said pastor Rich Scheenstra of Bellevue Reformed Church in Rotterdam.
Part in great drama
“Pageants provide children with an opportunity to experience themselves and playing a part in a great drama. The fact that children are doing the acting points to the fact that Jesus elevated the role of children. … He was the great leveler. He said, ‘Allow the children to come to me, such as these belong to the kingdom of God.’ ”
Scheenstra also explained why he believes parishioners enjoy the pageants.
“I know our congregation loves children, they delight in children,” he said. “I think there’s something about bringing together the spiritual and the physical and this great mysterious event with the simplicity of children playing a part in a pageant that says something about the wonder and simplicity of the Gospel. I think there’s something going on, on an unconscious level, that brings together delight in children and a sense of gratitude and wonder in the fact that God became a child.”
Scheenstra said it can be hard for some Bellevue Reformed actors to leave behind their Christmas tradition.
“Even when the kids get older, they really want to play a part,” he said. “When you think they might have grown out of it, you find out that they haven’t.”
Rev. Peter D. Russo, pastor of St. Joseph’s in Scotia, said pageants offer a way for children to participate in the Christmas service. “The kids are involved, so the parents are involved,” he said.
At Jonesville United Methodist Church in Clifton Park, the pageant was held last weekend. Children in the fourth through seventh grades had main roles.
“Little kids in the third grade and younger sing but do not act,” said Julie Hecht, in charge of the church education committee and director of the Christmas play.
“For the fourth-graders, it’s almost like a rite of passage,” Hecht said. “That’s the first year they get to be in the play. They’ve been singing the songs and now they get to act and that’s a good deal.”
Hecht believes some parishioners look forward to the play for tradition’s sake. “Some kids, their parents were in it when they were little,” she said.
Ella Weldy, a fourth-grader at Chango Elementary School in Clifton Park, played a shepherd. There were many questions when the sheep guardians met angels. “All the shepherds are confused, pretty much,” Ella said.
The pageant at Lutheran Church at the Good Shepherd in Glenville also was held last Sunday. Good Shepherd’s play was not associated with a church service; the afternoon presentation was followed by a potluck supper, carol sing-along and a Christmas tree decoration party.
Emily Klotz, one of the pageant organizers, said the play is based on an Advent calendar — different scenes from Christmas and the Bible. Narrators set the scenes.
“They’ll open one door and read about King Herod and his decree,” Klotz said. “King Herod will come out and say a line. We have Joseph and Mary and the donkey on the ride to Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary walk down the aisle. The donkey says ‘Are we there yet?’ We’re trying to throw in a little humor.”
Like actors in other churches, kids played angels and barn animals. The Good Shepherd angels wore small white gowns, wings made of white cardboard and golden tinsel garland and halos made of miniature star garland.
“We always have our 3-year-olds be the angels,” said Margaret Smith, one of the Good Shepherd Sunday school teachers. “Perfect typecasting.”
Eddie Larsen, 3, was especially glad to have the part — he realized angels can fly.
“It certainly helps them learn the Christmas story,” Klotz said. “I think they get more out of it when they’re active participants in the event.”
She added: “It’s a great Christmas memory they will make for themselves and for the families — who enjoy the pageants more then the children do simply because they are adorable. There’s nothing better than a 3-year-old angel stumbling down the aisle trying to figure out where they’re supposed to go.”