The images of Christmas: children scrambling under the tree for presents, the smells of evergreens and good food baking in the oven, andthe twinkle of holiday displays in department store windows, are as varied as the snowflakes many children pray for on Christmas Eve. For some native Washingtonians, this Christmas will be a time to reflect on the traditions of Christmases past. We've asked some of them to share those memories as a special gift from The District Weekly.
On Christmas Eve, 1965, I set off from my family's house in Brookland to the Michigan Park Christian Church at South Dakota Avenue and Taylor Street NE, where I sang second tenor in the youth choir. I was 13 years old, and would see most of my friends there, who would be singing in the choir, acting in the Christmas pageant of the nativity scene, or sitting in the audience. But foremost in my mind was a hope that I would be chosen to act in the pageant.
I was changing into my flowing burgundy choir robe when the Rev. Arthur Azlein, the pastor, came over to ask me to be a shepherd in the pageant.
Gone were any thoughts of the second tenor parts. Nary a suspicion entered my head of why I was being asked so late to appear. And of course it didn't occur to me that I had not rehearsed the part. Hadn't I seen it countless times already? All I could think of was the honor, the pride, the delight of seeing my friends and family in the audience. I was so excited I could barely put on the shepherd's robe, a rough burlap coat, and the bulky blue-and-white-striped leg warmers.
The choirs sang. I didn't listen. The pastor spoke. I was preoccupied with impending fame. Soon it was time for the pageant.
A platform had been placed over the baptismal pool in the front of the church as a stage for the adults portraying Mary and Joseph and the doll baby standing in for Jesus. The curtains opened to reveal Joseph standing proudly over his family and Mary huddled next to a makeshift crib. The choir began to sing, "While shepherds watched their flocks by night," the signal for my grand entrance.
As the youngest, it was my responsibility to carry the shepherds' lamb, portrayed by a young French poodle. As I marched up the aisle I was assured, serious, intent. The puppy, calmed by my firm grip, acted appropriately meek.
Until we got to the manger. As I stood adoring the Christ child, the "lamb" suddenly yelped and jumped out of my arms in a break for freedom, careening down the aisle.
The congregation tittered, laughing at me and the unruly dog. No pretense remained that I had held a lamb, or, in my mind, that I was still a shepherd.
I stood there frozen for probably 10 seconds that felt like 10 hours, then bolted after that dog. I grabbed it and held it close to ensure it didn't get away again. I got back on stage and refused to look at any of the people in the church, even when we marched out. I was convinced I had ruined the pageant.
But as the service was ending, Rev. Azlein caught me and took me aside to thank me for participating and to praise me for doing well.
However, I think that was the last time Michigan Park did the nativity scene.