The history and role of Christmas pageants

After the Gospel Acclamation, the children arise from their places in the first pews, as an instrumental version of “Away in a Manger” emanates from the piano. Two of the older kids, the ones who can read fairly well, begin telling the narrative of the Gospel story. The other children, costumed in oversized bed sheets and albs, rush towards their places in the back of the church and in the sacristy. Slowly, Mary and Joseph make their way forward—replete with a child dressed as Mary’s donkey. Shepherds, sheep, and angels abound, and gentle applause breaks out after the Christ Child is born. Welcome to the Nativity play at your average American Catholic parish. Where does this practice, now ubiquitous in American churches, come from? What are its origins? And what is its future?

Nativity scenes have been artistically depicted virtually as long as there has been Christian art, with the first being found on 4th-century sarcophagi. Although part of the visual canon, details such as Mary riding a donkey into Bethlehem or the ox and the ass present by the manger, are never actually recorded in the Bible, let alone the gospel we hear on Christmas Eve. They are recorded in apocryphal documents, such as the Protoevangelium of James and Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, but their presence in art at such an early time suggest they faithfully reproduced the traditions of the young Church.

The true forerunner of the modern nativity play, however, comes nearly a millennium later with St. Francis. Known for his concern for animals, charism of poverty, and devotion the Christ Child, recreating that hallowed night in Bethlehem with live animals to showcase the poverty and humility into which the King of Kings deigned to be born was a fitting contribution from the great saint. Even then, however, St. Francis was conscious to keep the feast “with all possible solemnity…lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty.” He explicitly sought and received permission from the pope before putting on the display. The practice quickly spread across Italian churches, and today is known in pageant and snapshot form in homes, schools, churches, and wherever religious celebrations of Christmas can be found.

Though novel, St. Francis’ practice of staging the nativity did not develop out of a vacuum. The medieval tradition of liturgical drama is traceable back to the 10th century, when the Quem Quaeritis, a ceremonial reenactment of the moment when the three women came upon the angel at the open tomb on Easter Sunday, was a regular part of liturgical practice in the medieval period, especially in France and England. Other liturgical dramas were regular features in the liturgical life of the Church, especially Passion plays and plays for the feast of Corpus Christi. However, by the 14th-century, these plays were being removed from the liturgy, partially because of the development of vernacular drama (whereas all liturgical drama was in Latin), and partly because such plays were becoming too humorous and light-hearted for the solemnity of the liturgy.

While his devotion thrives, the liturgical care St. Francis took has been long forgotten.

The Directory for Masses with Children does detail several adjustments that can be made to the Mass celebrated especially for youth. “As many children as possible should have special parts in the celebration,” since for them the “principles of active and conscientious participation” are “even more significant.” None of the prescribed actions, however, add elements to the liturgy as a mid-Mass theatrical production do; they only invite children to perform the standard elements of the Mass, such as altar serving, singing, and reading the petitions. The Directory goes further, expressing that children are disserviced if modifications for their benefit allow them to forget that “all the forms of participation reach their high point in eucharistic communion.”

Liturgical abuse is not a matter of violating a specific prohibition, but rather going beyond the acceptable, prescribed principals. When Nativity plays become an attraction unto themselves, a photo-op for parents, and a rite of passage for children, they fail to meet this standard. However, while they are not suitable for inclusion in the liturgy, Nativity pageants rightly retain a prominent place in Christmas devotions apart from the Mass. These plays become at their best a meditation on the humility of the Incarnate Christ, who did not disdain to become a child for our salvation, so the Church in turn should not disdain allowing children to tell again of His coming each year.

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