They’d never done this before.
A dress rehearsal always had preceded the Christmas pageant at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Beaufort.
That is, until this year.
Re-enacting the Nativity scene is an ambitious undertaking, one that should involve a run-through or two, but families’ scheduling demands got in the way of a rehearsal.
Church volunteers Kami Kinard and Annette Godsey decided the children would show up an hour before showtime and, well, it would just have to do.
“We (will) just put a lot of moms in that room,” Godsey says.
In the crowded classroom, an angel elbows another as she slips on a server’s robe. A child sifts through boxes of costumes in search of one better than what he’d been assigned.
And the shepherds — those old enough to have a staff — are having jousting matches.
One of the wise men can’t remember the names of the three gifts.
And the last of the trio seems to be unassigned.
“Who’s the third wise man?” a volunteer calls out at 10:02, just 28 minutes before the performance begins.
For parents, the church’s annual tradition is a chance to see their child on stage.
For the kids, it’s an opportunity to understand the real story of Christmas.
And for the church volunteers, it’s a lesson in just how much can go wrong in a 15-minute production.
The show must go on.
Behind the scenes
When Miss Jordan’s doctor told her she had an October due date, her first thought was that he could be baby Jesus in the pageant.
Mason Plair, born just a week after Hurricane Matthew, is the star of the show, and he doesn’t even know it.
Miss Jordan is the church’s choir director, so she can’t play Mary.
Enter Aunt Meredith. She took on the role because no one in the cast is quite old enough to handle a baby.
Heather Hamilton had the star role of baby Jesus seven years ago when she was months old. Now, the 8-year-old is an angel among a sea of them.
“I’m an angel, like, every year. Whyyy?” Heather whines.
She tugs at the elastic looping around her shoulders that holds up her wings.
“It’s tight,” she says. “You know, a real angel wouldn’t feel that.”
Grace Burvenich, 11, knows the feeling of being an angel year after year.
Asked if angels are the least desirable role, she nonchalantly shrugs, then repositions the bejeweled crown to fit over her ponytail. Kinard promoted her to be a wise man this year, a casting assignment Grace embraces wholeheartedly.
Troy Shull, also 11, resumes his role as a wise man from last year. Kinard tasks him with the camel, a cardboard painted cutout attached to wheels.
He demonstrates how to roll the animal along in a circle, never reversing it, because camels can’t backtrack.
“So, it’s kind of a big responsibility,” he says earnestly.
He glosses over last year’s camel calamity when he left the camel at the front of the altar, blocking the audience’s view. Kinard remembers to provide him with more specific instructions this year.
His brother, 5-year-old Michael Shull, hops from one gym sneaker to another as his grandmother, Lou Saugstad, adjusts his shepherd’s skirt.
“Now, you won’t trip,” she says.
“Last year, I was a pirate,” Michael says.
“No, you were a shepherd,” Grandma reminds him again.
Carols, camels and near crisis
While Pastor Craig starts service with a prayer, angels (and some of the adults) keep popping their head out the side door waiting for the cue, “Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly.”
As Miss Jordan begins to play piano, angel Gabriel enters stage left to deliver Mary the news. He must hold his hands up in proclamation for the duration of the song, but verse by verse in this lengthy hymn, his arms begin to slump.
The shepherds can’t sit still. And one of the angels rips off her halo, a headband lined with silver tinsel, during the angels’ big scene, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
As Mary and Joseph descend down the aisle with a sleeping Jesus in the mother’s hands, the choir begins to sing “O, Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Then the baby’s eyes open.
In the 11 years Kinard has helped organize the pageant, none of the babies sobbed or wailed.
Would this be the year?
Baby Mason starts fussing, so Mary pops a plastic green pacifier in his mouth.
In the next scene, the three wise men — er, rather two wise women — present their gifts. Troy is too occupied with the camel to offer his myrrh. He skillfully weaves the wheels into position and flashes a big grin to Grandma Lou.
Grace, the first-time wise man, looks to Kinard for confirmation when she remembers her stage instructions. They’re supposed to kneel in front of baby Jesus.
“Get down,” she whispers to the others as she falls to her knees.
The cast of 18 hold still — as still as can be expected of the bunch — for the last song, “Away in a Manger” while parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors stand in the aisle snapping pictures.
The children process out, and the audience exhales a collective sigh of relief.
“Well,” Pastor Craig says, “that wasn’t nearly as chaotic as I thought it’d be.”