I got a letter from 8-year-old Anna, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who asked me what I believe Christmas is all about. This is part of a virtual school assignment. It’s not every day a kid asks ME such philosophical questions, which just shows you how bad off our educational system is right now.
To answer your question, Anna, I can only tell you what I once learned in fourth grade, which I am happy to share:
As a kid, our school had a nativity play enacted solely by children. Back then, every school in the nation had nativity plays enacted by children. There were no such things as a nativity plays with adult casts. In fact, the whole reason these pageants occurred was so that fundamentalist parents could experience the joy of seeing uncoordinated 6- and 7- and 8-year-olds wear fake beards and recite intricate passages of middle-English scripture while holding live screaming babies in swaddling clothes.
All I ever wanted was to play Joseph. I can’t remember wanting a role more, except during our church’s Fourth of July pageant, entitled “Heroes of American Faith,” in which my mother desperately wanted me to play the role of Oral Roberts.
But Christmas held my heart. More specifically, it was Mary I loved. The role of Mary was played by Christina Moss, the Farrah Fawcett of the fourth grade. Every fourth-grade boy was in love with her. Or, as my cousin Ed Lee often put it: “Christina’s so pretty that I would crawl across a sea of broken glass to hear her belch on the phone.”
He was a very gross child, Anna.
So it was shaping up to be a great year. We had a solid script. Mrs. Everheart wrote the screenplay. She also served as director, assistant director, associate director, producer, diaper-changer for the Christ Child, and she played King Herod during the slaughtering of the innocents scene.
It was Mrs. Everheart who made sure we knew the True Meaning of Christmas, which had something to do with “never use your shepherd crooks to sword fight.”
That particular year, I played Shepherd Number Two, so I did a lot of sword fighting with the other six shepherds. Two shepherds in our production had speaking roles. Shepherd One and Shepherd Two.
The big moment for Shepherd Two (me) came when the Angel of the Lord (Marcus Smith), shone about us (Peavler’s Filling Station Little League team), whereupon we shepherds were supposed to be terrified.
At which point the script went as follows:
SHEPHERD 1: Look! An angel!
SHEPHERD 2: I’m SORE afraid!
Admittedly, it was not my proudest moment, pretending to be afraid of Marcus Smith who was a notorious bed-wetter. But our roles in life are doled out regardless of merit. So whenever Marcus Smith “shone about” us, I would recite: “You don’t scare me!”
And Mrs. Everheart would yell, “CUT!” Then she approached us with psychotic eyes and messy hair and gently remind us that she was indeed married to a Taekwondo instructor.
The finale of our production was when the entire cast joined hands and sang “Silent Night.” First in German, since Mrs. Everheart was German. Then in Spanish, since our school had three Mexican missionary children. And finally, we sang in what sounded like a mix of Japanese, Swahili, and Pig Latin, since many of the kids were Pentecostal.
This pageant was the highlight of my year, Anna. And being a shepherd wasn’t too bad. It could have been worse, I could have been cast as one of the fruits and vegetables. Our school had the only nativity scene with fruits and vegetables present at the birth of Christ. We had bananas apples, oranges, and a cluster of grapes like a real-life Fruit of the Loom ad.
But I’m drifting from my main point. Which is that I learned the actual meaning of Christmas that year by accident. It happened on the morning of our dress rehearsal when tragedy struck the fourth grade.
Mrs. Everheart called my house in a frenzy to tell my mother about the emergency.
She said that Marcus Smith (lead angel) had been playing baseball in his backyard and fractured his leg sliding into first base. He splintered his tibia so badly that he was going to miss school for months. And so it was that Mrs. Everheart appointed me as lead angel.
My task was to memorize lines from the second chapter of Luke.
This was a huge undertaking, Anna. I practiced all morning, afternoon, and night in my granny’s living room with a Bible while she watched “The Facts of Life” on television.
I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the sound of the TV and commit the King James verses to memory. And well, those words have remained permanently imprinted on my brain, and here they are:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.