I loved the 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 with cranky roller shades. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln kept watch over classrooms filled with wooden desks, and every morning a tower bell summoned us from the playground.
In December, a tree stood tall in the cafeteria, smelling of pine and adorned with ornaments created from construction paper and smudged paste. Glitter sparkled on oiled floors, and the voices of children practicing holiday songs drifted the halls.
It was a magical time when the farm children of Lake Shore Elementary prepared 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, one year, a cow that happened by.
All students participated, graduating from minor to starring roles as they progressed through school.
Kindergarten and first-grade students played adorable. They wandered the stage in angel, deer or elf costumes: waving at parents, losing haloes and antlers, tying shoes, and forgetting much-rehearsed lyrics.
Those in second and third grade performed group dances. They tripped on tin soldier and 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 danced with partners.
I remember singing, “Winter winds blow; soon we’ll have snow,” while skate-dancing. We wore earmuffs created by room mothers from paper cups and cotton batting, making us look like outer-space aliens rather than winter revelers.
My face glowed from the effort of dragging my partner around.
Glenn smelled like barn manure and talked in a mucus-plugged gurgle that caused me to compulsively clear my throat. I was always stuck with him because he was the only boy close to my height.
He weighed at least 300 pounds, a massive load to pull through a dance while hissing, “Step-glide, Glenn, step-glide; Glide, stupid, glide.”
The solos and speaking parts were eagerly sought by sixth-graders, especially the role of Mary in the nativity tableaux that ended the show as the audience sang “Silent Night.”
I vowed to stop swearing, pinching and spitting if I could be Mary. It worked. When Mr. Wadsen announced the roles, I was a tap-dancing holly sprig, a singing angel with a speaking part and Mary.
The night of the performance, the holly plants cavorted in green stockings. Missing the word green, I wore red socks to highlight the glossy berries dotting my tutu, thinking no one would notice their holes. Mrs. Huff, the director, suffering from nerves, became hysterical at the sight of my feet and commanded me to discard my disgraceful socks and dance barefoot.
Next, the angels warbled “The First Noel,” and I bellowed out my speaking part, “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna on high.” In my excitement, I became confused and substituted a classmate’s name: “Johanna, Johanna, Johanna on high.”
Mrs. Huff gasped and wobbled.
At last, the nativity scene: I donned a dark blue gown fashioned by my mother and draped a soft 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 straw.
I smelled my skating partner, Glenn, when he stood behind me as Joseph, and sensed the assembling wise men and shepherds, all solemnly subdued.
As the singing faded, Glenn gently placed his hand on my shoulder, and the shepherds knelt with bowed heads.
I sat up straight and cuddled the doll in my arms, bouncing it lightly, as if I were holding my baby brother. The pianist sounded the opening chords of “Silent Night.” The audience stood and began to sing. The spotlight hit us.
I looked up, proud to show this wondrous baby to my community of friends, and saw loving faces looking back.
Happiness flared inside me, and I experienced the spirit of Christmas for the first time: good will toward others, a feeling of peace and hope, a sense of belonging.
I glanced down at my baby. “Merry Christmas,” I whispered. “Merry Christmas.”
An earlier version of this column appeared in the Daily Press on December 23, 2008.