When I was ten and in fifth grade at St. Vincent’s Elementary School, I got chosen to be the lead angel in the school’s Nativity play. I was the only angel that got to say anything — I announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. They’d all seen the star, of course, but they didn’t know what the heck it was, and in general they were sore afraid.
My mother sewed a beautiful floor-length white robe. It had wide sleeves for tucking hands into. No wings (the principal had put her foot down), but my costume was covered with as many sequins as Mom had time to sew on.
Janet Beecher’s mother was in charge of making the halos for all seven angels. She came into school one noon hour and measured everyone’s head.
The play was scheduled for the Friday evening before Christmas. At six-thirty the cast assembled in our classroom to get into costume and makeup.
Excitement was running high in the cloakroom, which had been turned into the girls’ dressing room for the occasion. The boys kept sneaking to the cloakroom door to catch a glimpse of us girls getting dressed. However, Sister Francis, our homeroom teacher, had stationed herself on the inside of the door. She’d wait until one of the boys got so close she could hear him breathing. Then she’d push the swinging door, bopping him on the head. The resulting “ouches” were hilarious. Even Sister Francis seemed to be enjoying herself.
The role of the Blessed Virgin Mary was played by Mary Alice Tynan. She got the part because she was the only one of us with an authentic baby brother whose mother could be talked into letting him play the baby Jesus. Sister Francis thought the baby would be calmer with his own sister than with anybody else. Mary Alice had a long blue veil that covered her head and made her look like the statue of Mary in the left corner of our classroom.
Mrs. Beecher helped us angels into our flowing robes. When we were dressed, she handed out halos. The halos were made out of that silver tinsel stuff that you hang on Christmas trees. The fat sparkly ribbons were sewn on white pipe cleaners, which were bent into circles according to head size. I don’t know what went wrong with the measuring, but my halo was too big. It sagged onto my ears and looked more like a holy headband.
The angels weren’t needed at the beginning of the play, so we got to sit out front and watch until shortly after Kathy Pelletier as the innkeeper’s wife said, “There is no, uhm, room for you here at my inn. But, like, I do have an old stable out back. You may sleep in there.”
With the birth of the child imminent, the heavenly host crept backstage. In the dim light, as the others adjusted their robes, I checked to make sure the writing on my hand hadn’t smudged. My speech to the shepherds was taken from St. Luke’s account of the Nativity. It was important to say the words exactly as they were written. So just to be safe, I had my friend Robin Franey write the whole thing in ink across both my palms. If I forgot anything, I’d simply strike a prayerful attitude and read whatever words I couldn’t remember.
The palm reading idea turned out to have a flaw in it, because just before we were going to go out on stage, Sister Francis took my glasses off. She said angels don’t wear glasses. Apparently in heaven everyone’s blessed with 20/20 vision.
After the innkeeper’s scene, the curtain closed. The lights went out, the cardboard sheep were pushed on and — Lo! Some shepherds were suddenly abiding in the fields. Tom Parfit, Randy McDonald, and my twin brother Michael were curled up asleep in front of the curtain when the stage lights blazed once more.
The six nonspeaking angels wafted out to stand in a tight little semicircle upstage: it was time for my entrance. The world had become a blur. The stage lights formed a gigantic star of Bethlehem. I had no depth perception so I banged into a couple of the other angels as I lurched in front of them. I was extranervous because I could feel my halo slipping. The shepherds had become a brown glob on my right, but I turned in their direction and began: “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior which will…” At this point my halo fell off and rolled toward the footlights. I froze. I couldn’t remember my name, let alone an angelic pronouncement. I had no idea what to do, and apparently neither did anyone else. I think the shepherds went back to sleep.
Finally, after a silence that gave a glimpse of what eternity might be like, my brother Michael came to my rescue. In his brown and gray shepherd’s bathrobe he stood up, yawned hugely, and stretched as though he’d just woken up in his own bed. The rest of the cast watched him, transfixed like frightened deer caught in a headlight. Michael looked around and made a big show of seeing something by the footlights. He picked up the halo in one hand, a cardboard sheep in the other, and brought them over to where I was standing. “Did this fall off your head?” He held up the halo in two fingers as though he thought it might be radioactive or had rolled in something left by the sheep. I said, “Uh… ” “Well, one of my sheep almost stepped on it.” We could hear what sounded like choking coming from several places in the auditorium. The indignant shepherd continued, “He thought it was OK to eat, and now he’s dead!” He held the crayon-drawn carcass out to me as Sister Francis hissed “Mr. Murphy!” from the wings.
I finally found my voice. “Thank you…uh, Mr. …uh…” Then I snatched the halo and jammed it back on my head. Some of the tinsel had pulled away from the pipe cleaners and hung down my back like the tail of Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap.
My brother went back to his surviving sheep, and I cupped my hands three inches from my eyes and read, “For unto you is born this day a Savior which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in saddling clothes and lying in a manager”. (Boy! That didn’t sound right!)
Anyway, the eighth grader at the piano heard something like her cue and started to play “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”. We all sang as the curtain opened to reveal the final tableau: Joseph and Mary kneeling and baby Jesus lying in the “manager” surrounded by hay.
The Christmas sing-along went off without a hitch, except that during “Silent Night,” we all heard a “kersplat”, whereupon the Blessed Virgin exclaimed, “Yuck!” She picked up the newborn, who was crying, and handed him to Joseph, who was pictured holding the baby in one hand and his nose in the other in a polaroid snapshot taken by Sister Francis immediately after the curtain had come down.
In the car going home, I thanked my brother Michael for helping me out on stage. His answer was somewhat lacking in grace: “I thought the play was boring enough already,” he said. I asked my mother if she noticed that I forgot my lines after my halo fell off. “No,” she said, “I thought your were just heavenly.” I think she meant it.