I loved the small, rural community that sheltered me in the early 1950s and the elementary school that anchored it. The old brick building had creaky wooden floors, hissing radiators, and banks of windows darkened by contrary roller shades. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln kept solemn watch over classrooms filled with wooden desks. The cafeteria smelled of cinnamon rolls, and every morning a tower bell tolled eight times to summon us from the playground.
After Thanksgiving vacation, my love exploded. A Christmas tree stood tall in the cafeteria, radiating its outdoor smell of pine, adorned with ornaments created from construction paper and partially-eaten paste. Spilled glitter sparkled on oiled floors, and children's voices practicing holiday music drifted through the halls.
This was a magical time when the farm children of Lake Shore Elementary began to prepare for the annual Christmas Pageant, a gala attended by parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, former teachers, church elders, senior citizens, and on one occasion, a cow that wandered in through an open door.
All students at the school participated, graduating from minor to starring roles as they progressed from kindergarten through sixth grade. I made this journey with the same 21 classmates: nine girls and 12 boys, my extended family.
The job of the kindergarten and first-grade students was to be lovable, a fail-proof plan. They wandered around the stage in angel, deer or elf costumes, waving at their parents, tying their shoes, pushing their self-crafted hats out of their eyes, and forgetting the lyrics they had rehearsed for weeks.
Those in second and third grade performed group dances. They tripped on their tin soldier or snowflake getups, shoved slower hoofers out of the way, and sometimes, overcome by vigorous twirling, fell off the stage.
Students in fourth and fifth grade graduated to partner dancing. I remember singing, "Winter winds blow, soon we'll have snow," while doing a skating routine. We wore earmuffs created by room mothers from yarn, paper cups and cotton batting, making us look more like invading space aliens than winter revelers. As we went through our paces, my face glowed red from the exertion of lugging my partner, Glen Peterson, around the floor. Glenn smelled like barn manure and talked in a mucus-plugged gurgle that made me compulsively clear my throat. I was always stuck with him because he was the only boy close to my height. He also weighed at least 300 pounds, a massive load to pull through the steps of a dance while singing and hissing angrily, "Step-glide, Raymond, step-glide, GLIDE, stupid, GLIDE."
The solos and speaking parts were assigned to the sixth-graders and were eagerly sought, especially the role of Mary in the nativity tableaux, a silent staging that always ended the show as the audience stood and sang "Silent Night." I made mental promises to any power paying attention that I would stop swearing, pinching and spitting, if I could be Mary. It worked.
When Mr. Wadsen announced the roles to his sixth-grade class, I was a tap dancing holly sprig, one of nine singing angels - the only one with a speaking part - Mrs. Claus in the Santa's workshop scene, and the Blessed Mother Mary.
The night of the performance, the holly plants were to cavort in green stocking feet. I missed the word green. I wore red socks to highlight the glossy berries dotting my green tutu. Surely the audience wouldn't notice the ragged holes in each toe and heel. Mrs. Huff, the director, suffering from nerves, became hysterical at the sight of my feet and commanded me to take off my disgraceful socks and dance barefoot, adding that she hoped my feet were clean. I saw no need to tell her that they weren't.
Next, the nine singing angels warbled "The First Noel" after which I bellowed out my much-practiced speaking part, "Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna on high." In the excitement of the moment, I became confused and shouted out a classmate's name instead, so my line came out, "Johanna, Johanna, Johanna on high." Mrs. Huff's eyes rolled back in her head, and she wobbled.
Mrs. Claus went off without a hitch, except for the excitement caused by Pete Madsen as Mr. Claus. Pete, the second tallest boy in our class, had a voice like a castrated cat and refused to wear his glasses during the performance. He stepped on a kindergarten elf, whose bawling and blubbering drowned out my lines.
At last, the grand finale, the nativity scene: I donned a navy-blue, velvet gown my mother had fashioned from a formal she found at a thrift store and draped a soft white shawl over my hair. While the cast sang "Away in a Manger," I took the baby doll wrapped in a hand-crocheted covering and felt my way across the darkened stage to my seat on a bale of hay. I smelled my former skating partner, Raymond of the barnyard, when he moved in next to me as Joseph, and sensed the assembling wise men and shepherds, classmates all, and solemnly subdued.
"Away in a Manger" faded, Raymond cleared his throat and gently placed his hand on my shoulder. The shepherd's knelt with bowed heads. I sat up straight and cuddled the doll in my arms, bouncing it slightly just as I did when mom let me hold my baby brother.
The pianist sounded the first chord of "Silent Night," and the audience stood and began to sing. The spotlight hit us.
As I looked up, proud to show this special baby to all these people I knew and liked, I caught loving smiles on several faces. Something flared inside me, and for the first time, I experienced the true spirit of Christmas.
I was flooded with good will, a feeling of peace, a sense of belonging. I glanced down at my baby. "Merry Christmas," I whispered, "Merry Christmas."