LESLIE CRISS: Christmas memory bittersweet but very welcome

By Leslie Criss

“A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”
– Garrison Keillor

“I’m going to be Mary in the Christmas play. And if you try to be, or raise your arm, you’ll wish you didn’t.”
– Imogene Herdman
Memories are odd. They lurk in hidden spaces in the brain and at the craziest moments, they make themselves known.
One of my mama memories has been playing constantly in my head this holiday season. It’s not a bad memory, but it’s bittersweet now because my mama is no longer here.
She’s dressed and ready to go, wearing her long red coat she loved so much. I’m sure a colorful Christmas pin was affixed to the lapel. She was taking me to our church’s Christmas pageant – just Mama and me. Her firstborn, I was about 7. Sister Beth, 3, was staying home with dad because she was too young and not as well behaved in church as I.
We arrived at All Saints Episcopal Church in Grenada just in time to see one of the church’s matriarchs walk down the old parish house steps and tell us we were late – the pageant and reception were over. Mama had gotten the wrong time.
As my mother started to get back into our car, she stepped off the curb and twisted her ankle, falling to her knees on cold concrete. But we did not go home.
She was intent that I not be disappointed, so she drove us the three blocks down Main Street to First Baptist Church, where we were just in time to hear a Christmas cantata being performed by the choir.
I have no memory of the musical program. But the memory of my mother’s determination to get for her and her girl some Christmas spirit is powerful.
I not only attended that missed church pageant many times in years to come, but I was a part of it most of those years.
Most years, I was an angel with stiff cardboard wings, made shiny with aluminum foil that covered them.
Angels had no speaking parts. We only sang when directed by the choir master.
The coveted role each year, of course, was Mary. And even this shy girl wanted the chance to play the part.
Finally, my year arrived. I was asked to be Mary, and though I was scared to death, I was honored to pretend to be the mother of Jesus. No better role there was.
The Sunday morning before the evening’s pageant, we had dress rehearsal instead of Sunday school. I paid little attention in church. My thoughts were of the performance I would give later in the day. I was certain acting awards would be part of my future.
They were not.
Two hours before the pageant I became violently ill with a stomach virus.
“The show much go on,” I told my parents.
My father mumbled something about how it wouldn’t look right for Mary to throw up in the manger.
So my understudy sat in the stable with Joseph and Jesus. And I stayed home.
Away from the manger.

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