Bygone VT Christmas Pageants
By Art Sharkey
Created as a part of the Aging Resource Center memoir-writing class.
Ever get asked to volunteer for something, which triggers a let me think about that response? I have, but got involved anyway, and am left with memories of those events, which I’d just as soon forget but can’t cause people still talk about them and my part in them. Let me explain.
From 1979 to 2003, the Sharkey family lived in North Thetford, Vermont off Route 5, adjacent to the public boat landing by the Connecticut River. They owned and operated The Stone House Inn, a small Bed & Breakfast facility on their 18-acre property. Their huge barn sat beside the inn closer to Route 5.
In the early 1990s a new pastor at the Federated Church in the middle of the village wanted to start a nativity pageant one Christmas and asked the Sharkeys if the congregation could use the barn at the inn for the setting of the manger scene. The Sharkeys okayed he request and helped prepare the barn with fresh bales of hay, theatrical lighting and assigned spaces for the animals, which would be brought to the scene. The pastor chose the cast of players, mostly children of the parishioners. Participants included angels, shepherds, the Magi, the roles of Mary, Joseph and the baby, Jesus. Local farmers brought the sheep, goats, and the donkey that would be used in the setting. Once the cast was chosen, a group of ladies from the church made the costumes and props used by the various characters. Lots of planning and collaboration took place. The pastor walked the actors through a rehearsal several days before the actual enactment. The day was selected and at the Sunday service before the pageant, the pastor explained to the congregation the role they would play. Everyone would meet at the church. Joseph would lead Mary, sitting atop the donkey from the church parking lot down Route 5 toward the barn and inn. The parishioners, carrying lighted candles and hymnals, would follow about 20 feet behind the donkey. The couple would be turned away from the inn, and be pointed toward the barn by the innkeeper. Mary and Joseph would then go inside the barn and the congregation would follow to the main barn doorway. The practiced songs would be sung, prayers said, and Jesus born. That was the plan.
Mr. Sharkey was not a church-going member of the above congregation, but did attend services there on occasion. That first year, he had not been informed by the pastor that he was expected to play the part of the innkeeper. He and his wife were busy every weekend with their inn duties. On the night of the pageant, he was working in the kitchen and happened to look out the kitchen window by the back door. It was early evening and coming down Route 5 was a parade of some 170 people with candles lighted, led by a little guy pulling a donkey, on which sat a small girl wrapped in a robe and veil. The little guy stopped about 10 feet from the inn’s back porch, handed Mary the donkey reins, walked up onto the porch, knocked on the door, and then stepped back a few spaces.
The innkeeper put two and two together and realized he had a job to do, which was to dramatically turn Joseph and Mary away, but let them take shelter in the barn. He was surprised the pastor had not gone over this with him and also more surprised at how young both Joseph and Mary were. He directed drama at the high school in town, so was up for improvising. He opened the kitchen door, stepped out onto the porch, looked at the character Joseph, then at the crowd of candle bearers and bellowed in his dramatic voice for all to hear, “WHAT IS IT YOU SEEK?”
Little Joseph’s mouth fell open, and his eyes widened. He backed up, almost stumbled, turned and ran crying into the crowd, screaming, “Mommy, mommy, he’s scaring me, really scaring me!”
The editor of the weekly church bulletin wanted to put the following headline in the next issue, but the pastor wouldn’t permit it.
“Ham Innkeeper derailed birth of Jesus in the manger till Joseph regained his courage.”
Christmas pageants at the barn in subsequent years were just as unpredictable. One year’s menagerie of animals brought there included Blossom, an 800 lb. pig—why? The innkeepers didn’t know. The day before the pageant, the pig broke out of her stall and the barn and headed up Route 5. Getting her back took hours, and she was not invited the next year. Ironically, the Thetford woman who supplied many of the animals used—including Blossom—ran for governor in 1998 and did quite well against a popular incumbent.
Another year, the innkeeper was on crutches from a hip operation, but still was asked to play the role. He waited in the kitchen and was just ready to hobble out to the approaching mob, which entered the driveway, when the phone rang. He answered hurriedly saying, “Could I call you back? You won’t believe who's at the back door!”
The following year, the donkey, which was to carry the Virgin Mary to the stable, died suddenly two days before the pageant night and was replaced by a large horse, which made the Virgin Mary seem tiny. And, the year in which the pageant’s most elaborate preparations occurred was sidelined by a horrendous snowstorm, which lasted four days.
Time passed. Babies, who played the part of Jesus in the Nativities years ago, became Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels as they grew older and eventually graduated form high school. Fond memories, however, of acting in those town Christmas Pageants stay a lifetime.
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