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December 16, 2017

When I was two years old, my parents were asked to leave the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg. This had nothing to do with my being in the terrible two-year-old stage of childhood development. My parents were sent to start a mission outside the Spartanburg city limits. First Baptist Church had purchased one of several vacant chapels remaining at Camp Croft, an abandoned military facility where the United States Army had trained soldiers during World War II.

My dad, who ran a lumberyard as his regular work, had always been a devoted churchman. At Camp Croft, he did almost everything from repairing the building, to leading the singing, serving as deacon chairman, sometimes preaching, and praying without ceasing.

Christmas at Croft was always a happy time. One of the high points was the Sunday night in December when every young person in our church took part in the Christmas pageant. I was usually a shepherd. Any boy who did not have one of the major parts – Joseph or

a wise man – was automatically relegated to the role of shepherd. Any girl who did not have a

major part – Mary or the Archangel – played the role of an angel in the heavenly host.

Being a shepherd was not hard. A shepherd did not need much equipment. Shepherds went barefooted. They wore their fathers’ bathrobes and draped towels on their heads, which they secured with old neckties. Since my dad did not own a bathrobe, I had to wear my mother’s

bathrobe. It was a red quilted robe.

The only problem with being a shepherd was coming up with a suitable staff. At Croft we

tried several kinds over the years. One Christmas, we made the staffs out of heavy cardboard.

They worked fine until it rained on them. Once they became soggy, they just flopped around.

Another year, the shepherd’s crooks were made from broom handles and bent coat hangers.

These worked fine as crooks and as lethal weapons. Finally, my dad made some top-of-the-line

shepherds’ crooks out of quarter-inch plywood at the lumberyard. When the shepherds gathered in the foyer of the church, we always managed to have a sword fight or two. Those plywood crooks sure made a lot of racket as they clacked together.

When I was ten years old, Gregory, the boy who always played the part of Joseph, came down with the flu. On Wednesday night before the Christmas pageant, the pastor’s wife, who served as the director, told my mother that I would have the role of Joseph.

This change in cast called for several major revisions. First of all, my mother’s red quilted bathrobe, which I had always worn in previous pageants, just would not do. The pastor’s wife made me wear the pastor’s bathrobe, which was the most garish-looking robe imaginable. I felt like I was wearing Joseph’s coat of many colors. She rolled up the sleeves, bloused the

robe above the belt so the back wouldn’t drag across the floor, and cinched the belt tight. I

was still allowed to go barefooted, but I would have to wear a different towel. A white one was

much too plain for Joseph. She wrapped a striped towel around my head and tied it with one of

her husband’s gaudy cast-off ties.

The biggest problem I faced was that I had to stand close to Jenny, the prettiest girl in the church. At that time in my life, I was scared of girls. Jenny was a year or two older than I was, and she looked like a grown woman to me. She had started filling out in all the right places. Standing close to Jenny would have been hard in any circumstance, but standing close to Jenny while wearing a bathrobe was almost more than I could take.

The cast practiced the production on the Wednesday night before the Christmas pageant. Several men in the church worked on the spotlights that were to be focused on the stage. Jenny and I were to walk down the aisle and place a doll in a manger made from scrap lumber.

Beverly, the Archangel, was stationed in the baptistery window above the scene and shared good tidings of great joy. As the shepherds came down the aisle, the heavenly host was to sing to them. Finally, the wise men were to come forward and present their gifts to the baby: a cigar box wrapped in gold Christmas paper, a Witch Hazel bottle wrapped in tin foil, and an Old Spice Aftershave bottle.

We had rehearsed well. We were ready.

On Saturday, Gregory called and said, “Kirk, I’m better now. I don’t have the flu anymore. Please let me be Joseph. I already know how to do it, and I can do it better than you.” Gregory was sweet on Jenny.

I said, “No, I’ve practiced, and I think I can do it.”

Gregory was a persuasive fellow. When I wouldn’t budge, he talked one of the wise men into being a shepherd instead. If Gregory couldn’t be Joseph, at least he could be a wise man.

The night of the pageant came. Everyone – shepherds, angels, wise men, Mary and Joseph – gathered in the foyer of the sanctuary. Shepherds were clacking those plywood staffs together, and angels were fluffing their wings as they were led into a side room. Each group had a cue to enter the sanctuary. Jenny and I, as Mary and Joseph, would enter with baby Jesus when we heard the music of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Anxious to see inside the sanctuary before the pageant began, Jenny cracked the door open and peeked inside at the assembled worshippers. She said with alarm, “Y’all, there are people in there! I’ve gotta’ go to the bathroom!” She tossed me the baby doll and took off running.

She had been gone just a few minutes when the pianist began playing our cue, the carol “O LittleTown of Bethlehem.” I stood there with the doll, not knowing exactly what to do. I didn’t want to walk in without Mary. There couldn’t be a single-parent family in the Christmas pageant! Thinking that we had not heard our cue, the pianist started playing the second verse much louder. Jenny returned soon afterwards. I shoved the doll into her arms before we hurried down the aisle together.

I don’t remember the doll ever crying when we rehearsed. But it was a Betsy-Wetsy doll. This time when Jenny laid baby Jesus, the doll, in the manger, it issued forth a wail that sounded like a mad cat. I got tickled. Have you ever been tickled when you weren’t supposed to be? I struggled desperately trying not to giggle out loud. After all, this was supposed to be a solemn occasion.

Fighting to keep my composure while waiting for the shepherds to walk in, I became aware that I was extremely hot. In those days, I used a product on my flat-top haircut known as Butch Hair Wax. It was basically petroleum jelly with a faintly sweet aroma. I would comb that wax on my hair to make it stand up straight. Between the glare of the spotlights, my nervousness about standing next to Jenny, my attempt to control the giggles, the warmth of a towel tied on my head, and the pastor’s bathrobe, my hair wax started to melt. I could feel it oozing down my forehead. I used the sleeve of the pastor’s bathrobe to wipe the goo away from my eyes.

When the carol “Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” was played, the group of boys rattled down the aisle with their plywood staffs. Beverly, the Archangel, appeared in the baptistery. When the spotlight caught Beverly’s braces, it really did look as if the glory of the

Lord was shining round about her. Most of us were “sore afraid.”

“Angels We Have Heard on High” marked the entrance of the heavenly host through the side door. During rehearsal, the angels had not practiced their entrance with their wings. The wings were made out of cardboard covered in gold foil with a gold tinsel border. No one

had foreseen the problem their size would cause. With wings wider than the door, the first angel got stuck in the door jamb. A helpful mother backstage rushed over and turned each angel sideways before sending them in, one at a time.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are,” signaled the wise men to enter and present gifts to the baby Jesus. They made their way down the aisle as the carol was played, one carrying the cigar box wrapped in gold paper and one carrying the Old Spice Aftershave bottle. Gregory followed.

I think he must have been about halfway down the aisle when he realized that he had forgotten to bring the Witch Hazel bottle. In his last-minute rush to get one of the main roles, he left out one of the most important props – a gift. As I again wiped away Butch Hair Wax from my forehead with the sleeve of the pastor’s bathrobe, I saw Gregory hike up his own bathrobe and reach in his blue jeans pocket.

The wise men reached the front of the church and presented their gifts. The cigar box wrapped in gold paper was laid by the manger. The Old Spice Aftershave bottle was carefully of offered to the Christ child. Finally, Gregory placed at the feet of baby Jesus his gift, a Duncan Spinner Yo-Yo, recently extracted from the pocket of his blue jeans.

I have often thought about that Christmas pageant at Croft. It certainly was different from the elaborate, professional ones presented in places like Oberammergau, the Crystal Cathedral in California, or even in the large, sophisticated churches I have served since Croft.

In some ways, though, that Christmas pageant at Croft is more like the first Christmas than any of the others could ever be. The people in that first Christmas pageant in Bethlehem so long ago were so much like us. There was a young woman, probably a teenager, about to have her first baby in a stable. There was a carpenter serving as a midwife, who, like the character Prissy in Gone with the Wind, didn’t know a thing about birthing babies. The shepherds, the blue-collar workers of their day, were just minding their own business when they were overcome with fear, wondering what on earth, and what in heaven, was happening. And there were the wise men, who hitched their caravan to a star, bringing gifts as precious to them as a Duncan Yo-Yo is to a young boy.

In the Christmas pageant at Croft, we always concluded the service by singing “Away in a Manger.” A line in that carol says, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Just as surely as that Betsy-Wetsy doll cried, I’ll bet the baby Jesus cried.

I do too.

I laugh, and I cry, every time I remember Christmas at Croft.

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