The gift of a magi

Jo Ann Skousen Contributor
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A recent article in USA Today (Many Skip Christmas’ Religious Aspect, December 20) reports that while nine out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, less than half attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and less than 30 percent read or tell the nativity story from Luke.

I’ve been producing Christmas pageants my whole adult life. Some of them have been full-scale musical plays, with sets and props, dialogue and costumes, and weeks of rehearsals. Others have been quite simple, like the one I produced this week for a tiny church in Yonkers, New York, with no dialogue and just tinsel halos on the angels’ heads and Bedouin-style scarves for the shepherds.

Here in our little congregation, many of the children participated in their first ever Christmas pageant two years ago, when I offered to put one together for our Christmas celebration. I asked the three oldest boys, who were then 10 years old, to play the three Wise Men, and they eagerly agreed. They rehearsed “We Three Kings” with all the rowdy gusto of inner city kids from Yonkers, but it was amazing to see how their demeanors changed when they put on their costumes. They became the kings! Last year the same three boys performed the same parts, with similar enthusiasm.

This year it was a little different. Twelve-year-old Jay has been battling cancer. It’s a bad kind — kids who have this don’t usually recover. Chemo and radiation will extend his life, but not by much. When I went to his house to visit a couple of weeks ago, he asked me, “Are we going to do that Christmas play again? Can we be the kings?”

I have to be honest. I wasn’t going to do a Nativity this year. Our theme for our Christmas party was “Christmas around the World,” and I wasn’t going to do a pageant. It’s just so much work! But for Jay, I said yes. For Jay, we decided to have a linger-longer luncheon after church, and a makeshift, by-the-seat-of-our-pants-with-no-rehearsal Nativity.

When I got to church that morning, I found out that Jay wasn’t there. He isn’t doing well, and was back in the hospital, desperately hoping that he could come. His father was at the hospital, trying to see if the doctors would let Jay out long enough to perform. I thought, “No way.” Find a doctor on a Sunday morning willing to sign him out at a moment’s notice? A kid with no immune system? But the next thing I knew, Jay was there. As he practiced with the other boys, singing so beautifully, I was humbled by his simple wish: to be a king once more. And I realized with a jolt that he possibly won’t be with us next time.

When it was time for the actual pageant, Jay stumbled over the words and messed up on his solo. The piano player kept going, and Jay’s solo was over, and he hadn’t sung it. I hurried up behind him and said to the audience, “We’re going to do this once more. Jay knows this!” So he sang it again, just right, with a big smile on his face.

I’ve directed a lot of Christmas pageants in my years. I’ll never forget my seven-year-old Valerie singing “Starry Night” for the first time, or my eight-year-old Tim singing “The Little Drummer Boy,” or my Lesley singing the Carol of the Animals, or my Hayley turning herself into the tap-dancing angel when everyone else was perfectly solemn, or my Todd and his puppet show Nativity one year.

Those were fun, and I loved watching my own children shine. It was their gift to me each year. But I think the purpose of all those pageants all those years was just to prepare me so I could throw together a Nativity pageant at the last minute and give Jay that experience he had on Sunday. What a Wise Young Man. What a tough road he has ahead of him. What a wonderful miracle it will be if he can become an adult.

Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as the entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.