Friday, December 19, 2003


Christmas pageants, like the event they re-enact, tend to proceed according to script, hewing as closely to the text as the Birth did to the prophecies that foretold it. The census, the overcrowded inn, the manger, the swaddling cloths. The shepherds, the star, the Magi. The gold, the frankincense, the myrrh. Phrase follows phrase with the comforting, iconic predictability of a much beloved bedtime story.

In my own Northern version of these things there is always snow, a vision more derived more from manger scenes on New England commons than from the reality of Bethlehem’s climate. Rather than dialogue, there is always a narrator: third person, omniscient. A decree went forth. No room at the inn. The shepherds watched their flocks by night. Hark ! The herald angels sing. Gospel, shot through with the bright tinsel of carols, and padded with the pure white cotton of fake snow.

I have a small, black-and-white photo of the Christmas pageant S. and I put on over forty years ago. I was 10, she 13. It was Christmas night, Aunt Sofie’s annual party. The grownups smoked, drank cocktails, and talked long into the night with Sinatra Christmas songs on the hi-fi. S. and I put on entertainments. They indulged us by watching.

In the photo, S. and I sit side by side on a kitchen chair to which we’ve taped a donkey’s face and ears. The donkey is goofily toothy; its nostrils flare; its eyelashes are absurdly long. I am wearing a bedsheet and a sheer, silky scarf as a veil, and am holding, in an oddly casual manner, a swaddled baby doll: we are virgin and child. I am cocking my head and mincing coyly for the camera. A real ham. S. is in drag. With a brown hairnet taped to her chin, and a construction paper handlebar mustache, she looks more like a civil war general than Saint Joseph, but the chenille bathrobe and the crooked wooden cane are pure Sunday School.

Behind us, taped to the wall, is a large Santa cutout.

But it’s really not such a nice story, is it. The overcrowded inn is the least of it. Take the wise men. The children’s version never mentions how they were summoned by Herod as celestial-event consultants, nor that Herod’s project was a search and destroy mission against the infant who threatened his sovereignty. The Magi were to be his unwitting patsies. They would lead him to the little bastard usurper ! Warned at the last moment, the wise men did not to return to Herod’s palace.

The children’s version usually ends well before Herod, thwarted, flying into a rage, orders the slaughter of all infants under two. This, too, had been pre-ordained in scripture. So the new parents pack up the infant and flee on their kitchen chair donkey into Egypt. Except I doubt that was part of our screenplay. Ours was the Disney version. With a cardboard Santa chorus line.

It was only as an adult, and after my own son had been born, that Herod took his rightful place in my inner Christamas pageant: symbol of the terrible, death-dealing political context into which the miraculous child was born. Into which so many miraculous children (for all nativity is miracle) are still born. The Slaughter of the Innocents is an essential part of the Christmas Story, the canvas on which it is painted, the blood in which it is written: the blood that portends the blood that will be shed at the other end of the long, dramatic arc. And the Coventry Carol, which sings of it, is the most beautiful and terrible of lullabies, the perect Christmas song:

Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lullay, lullay
Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lullay, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day,
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lullay, lullay.

Herod the king in his ragin,
Charged he hath this day,
His men of night, in his own sight,
All children young to stay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting not say, nor sing,
By, by, lullay, lullay.

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