It started, as all teenage communication starts, with a text. My son Mackenzie’s friend, Marol, whose father, Roland Feickert, is the minister at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lawrenceville, texted him a few Sundays ago when I was driving him home from kendo, a Japanese martial art practiced with wooden swords and extremely refined, specific physical techniques.
Kendo actually plays into this story. I like that despite the bashing on each other’s heads with swords (they wear helmets, chest shields, and full samurai regalia), Mackenzie is spending time with a community of men who are bound by a common vision. Mackenzie would say: “I bow before you, my enemy, with honor and respect, and then I will kick the shit out of you, but as I do, it will look like George Balanchine choreographed it.” In fact that is not the case. Donn F. Dreager writes: “Kendo is perceived by most experienced practitioners to be an essentially spiritual discipline.” A kendo practice is filled with as much ritual and structure as any religious service, from kneeling in a specific way to show respect to the sensei (master teacher) at the beginning and end of practice to reciting the tenets of kendo — which focus on the improvement of character and the development of spiritual maturity — together before class.
Now, the text from Marol: She says there aren’t enough teenage boys in the congregation and asks if Mackenzie would play Eli, the innkeeper, in the Christmas pageant. “Do you think I should do it?” Mackenzie asks me. I immediately reply, “Yes, you should help out your friend, and it will be a good experience.” (He can add innkeeper to his acting resume.) “OK,” he says, and texts Marol back.
Secretly, I think to myself, we are not churchgoers, and it would be a good thing for Mackenzie to get a peek inside the world of religion. He once came home ecstatic after a bar mitzvah service: “I liked the part where you honor the dead, and I got to think about grandpa.”
I’ve always had a dream of seeing my kid in a Christmas pageant. A real mother sobfest, like watching your kid dressed up as a Thanksgiving pilgrim with brown construction paper hat and vest, or taking a girl to the prom, awkward in a bowtie and cummerbund.
In all honesty, my exposure to Christmas pageants is strictly limited to Linus, with a good grip on his blanket, reciting the Christmas story under a lone spotlight in that little Linus voice that works its way right into the most cynical, Grinchiest part of your heart. You can count it year after year — Linus, the blanket, and Luke 2:9: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
I picked up Mackenzie from his first rehearsal and asked in the most nonchalant voice I could muster, “How did it go?”
“Mom, everyone there was so NICE. I mean, really nice.” He jumped in with two feet, even going in on weeknights to help paint the backdrops.
On Sunday morning, December 18, my husband and I entered the church, immediately hit by those signature scents of every church: the slight mustiness of wooden pews and hymnals, the Crayola scent of the kids’ nursery, the waxy aroma of candles, and coffee percolating from the fellowship hall. Here we were, two reluctant guests with our own faded memories of being taken to church as children in the ’60s — me to the Unitarian Church in Stamford, Connecticut, where they taught evolution in Sunday school. I would search for my mother in the fellowship hall amidst a sea of hems of Jackie O dresses and Twiggy-hued stockings, while sneaking cookies from a table the same height as my eyes. My five-year-old brain just couldn’t comprehend why grown-ups were so over the moon about coffee. It eluded me completely.
My husband remembers church in rural Tennessee as being dragged by his granny to the Southern Baptist church where halfway through the service, a random group of parishioners would go up to the altar, kneel on one knee, and just started praying out loud at a deafening volume, and then, just as suddenly, walk slowly back to their seats one by one, like the returned Americans emerging from the spaceship at the end of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” My husband said all this weirdness was worth it for the church picnics, where the fried chicken was the Baptists’ manna from heaven, upon which everyone swarmed like bees to get to the best pieces. “That chicken was the target,” he says.
The Lutheran church’s Christmas pageant was a bare bones production (the first for this church) — no sheep, no wise men, just two simple but beautifully painted backdrops strung from rope across the width of the altar: one depicting the inside wall of a rustic stable with a small square window through which Joseph and Mary could watch a black night sky studded with yellow stars; and a hillside for the shepherds with a large six-pointed star of Bethlehem.
The kids had basic costumes of robes made from white sheets and rope; the shepherds had what looked a lot like large beige dinner napkins on their heads held in place with a circle of dark ribbon. Telltale signs of the 21st century peeked out from underneath the costumes — orange and black sneakers, Ugg boots, and under one angel’s robe, a purple tee shirt with a rainbow made of sequins. The angels wore beautiful white dresses, gossamer wings, and halos made out of plastic headbands, wire, and silver tinsel garlands.
The classic story of Mary and Joseph coming to the inn was enacted with a few blips that only added to its charm: a mom delivering cues in a stage whisper to a small shepherd suddenly struck with stage fright: “Go up to the mike!” and mouthing the shepherd’s one precious line, “Fear not!” One little blond angel suffered surreptitiously with a terrible case of itchy tights. Another mom, a beautiful Indian woman, played the Guardian Angel with her two very young daughters (along with Itchy Tights), and the four of them sat quietly in front of the manger, looking adoringly on the baby Jesus, a large doll wrapped in swaddling clothes.
At one point the littlest angel, no bigger than Cindy Lou Who, brandishing an orange crayon her mother had given her to keep her busy until their entrance, suddenly announced in a voice that could carry to the fifth mezzanine at Carnegie Hall, “Baby! Baby is sleeping!” and began affectionately tapping the doll’s forehead with her orange crayon. The other two angels sat quietly in place, one emitting a giant yawn as her little sister continued to tap her crayon on Baby Jesus’ head, and then sweetly, silently, simply, she took the hand of Itchy Tights. The two girls sat there for the rest of the pageant, holding hands, bonded in quiet unison. In retrospect, the most meaningful part of the pageant for me was watching those two little girls, pure as the driven snow, their little pudgy hands entwined — one dark-skinned, one white — a quiet symbol of solidarity that made me feel as if they were holding my hand, too.
In the fellowship hall afterwards, my husband and I experienced ourselves what Mackenzie had experienced. These were nice people. Really nice. David discovered someone who was visiting from Tennessee and was off and running in conversation, and I spoke with Marol’s mom, Mary, who had directed the pageant. She couldn’t say enough good things about Mackenzie, how wonderful he was to work with, what a joy (a joy! Imagine that!), what a charming young man. I wondered if he’d slipped her a $20 pilfered from the collection bowl. “You know,” she said, “it was Mackenzie’s idea to paint a window on the stable backdrop and the night sky full of stars, and it was his idea to paint the big six-pointed star of Bethlehem on the hillside backdrop.” Maybe, I thought, the spiritual aspects of kendo and the sense of community it provides had influenced him more than I had given credence to.
I glanced at Mackenzie across the fellowship hall, eating cake with a gaggle of kids, a big smile on his face, and suddenly felt I had just received the only Christmas present I needed: to have total strangers welcome my son into their fold with open hearts, completely void of judgment or agenda. The kendo guys had already done that; now the Lutherans had too.