Thinking Out Loud

December 19, 2011

Casting the Role of Mary in the Christmas Play

Canada’s largest newspaper has an ethics reporter which often overlaps on themes we discuss here. Ken Gallinger’s column appears on Saturday in The Toronto Star, but unfortunately, when I wanted to excerpt from this one, it hadn’t been posted online.  Ken was kind enough to send me a copy, but it flows so well that I really want you to read every word of it in context.

This may hit a few of you where you live. Ever wished you had the wisdom of Solomon? Ever been in a situation in church life that was so politically hot you could hear the paint peeling off the walls? 

Maybe you need a neutral mediator.  An ethicstitian. The weekly column has a Q&A format, so this one begins with a reader question:

Q: I have been seconded to direct my church’s Christmas Pageant. Every year, kids look forward to being old enough to fill the two main parts: Mary and Joseph. This year, we have a new family that just started coming in September. Their daughter is 12, and a star in the community theater group. The minister has “encouraged” me to use their daughter as Mary; he believes this would help the family integrate into the congregation. I don’t think that’s fair to girls who’ve been coming faithfully since they were born. What’s your take?

A:  It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Mothers clambering to sign up their daughters for a make-believe life of perpetual virginity. Ministers hiding Scotch under their pulpits. Pageant directors leaping off ecclesiastical bridges. Kids crying because they are typecast as donkeys.

And speaking of donkeys — your minister’s heart may be in the right place, but he needs to give his head a shake. There are countless appropriate ways to welcome new families into a worshipping community. They can be greeters. They can serve at the Christmas dinner for the poor. They can light candles, read scripture, sing in the choir. Opportunities are endless.

What there aren’t, I suspect, are a lot of perks for kids who regularly attend church (synagogue, mosque, whatever) week after week from the day they are born. While other kids are off playing hockey, swimming, sleeping in, lying on the beach at their cottage, these little troupers come out faithfully to listen to stories — often packaged in the most boring way imaginable — recounted by voluntolds who would rather be almost anywhere else.

Then along comes the Christmas pageant, and there’s magic in the air. Who will get to be Mary this year? And who will be Joseph?  The new kid?  The BRAND NEW kid??? Hee Haw.

I’m not arguing seniority should be the only consideration on occasions such as this. I’d want my virgin and her stunned non-mate to be good “citizens” in the congregation – kids who take part in the work as well as the fun, kids who could be counted on, kids who would put in the effort to carry such major roles. I’d also want them to know the difference between Jesus and Santa – there’s no time to explain that Rudolph wasn’t in the stable with Mary and Joe.

This might not always result in the selection of the very best dramatis personae from a theatrical point of view. It might not satisfy the big givers, whose kid (comes three times a year, between trips to Europe) ends up as a palm tree in the background. It might not call out a Mary who is beatific in appearance or demeanor. What it would do, however, is make clear that faithfulness has at least a few rewards … and if that’s not true at church (synagogue, mosque, whatever), is it true anywhere?

A final note: I have a five-year-old goddaughter who is beautiful, talented and smart.  If anyone needs a rent-a-virgin for their pageant this year, let me know … she’d be terrific. Did I mention how talented she is? Star quality. References available.

~Kenneth Gallinger

So, do you agree? Has this ever happened in your church? Were you ever a shepherd or a palm tree? Have you read or seen the movie of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever with Loretta Swit?  Don’t you think ethicstitian is a really cool word?


  1. For this to be an issue within a church, one would call into question the true motive behind the Christmas pageant. Is it designed in celebration and honor of the Lord, or for elevating the abilities of our children and provide a boost to personal pride? Psalms 115:1 Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.
    Whether or not someone has been in a church since birth, that should not be the deciding issue and could be divisive, showing preference for one group over others, when we are all equal members of the body of Christ. Romans 12:10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;
    I’ve been a part of a pageant before which was a lot of fun for everyone involved. It was a wonderful time in which all families had a chance to participate each year. To lock a family out because they don’t have ‘rank’ or a history with a fellowship is again, very divisive and creates a lowly position in the church for others which is wrong and was never the intent of Jesus. Ephesians 2:19-21 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:
    I think the perfect example of brotherly love and faithfulness to the Lord, would be to allow the newer family a part in the pageant. Faithfulness to Christ, not a religious organization is what should be considered and in the end, is all that matters.

    Comment by DaddyJoe — December 19, 2011 @ 11:28 am

    • Well, yes; that’s central; why must we do the pageant every year? I guess it’s important for kids to feel a part of the life of the church, but a Christmas concert could accomplish as much as a Christmas play; though not every child sings well. It would at least eliminate the need for casting parts.

      I think churches do the play simply because they’ve always done the play. It’s another example of where tradition defies any other logic.

      I found your Psalms and Ephesians quotations a little muddy; your comments will probably carry more weight if you use a modern English translation next time.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 19, 2011 @ 11:39 am

      • About translation: Thank you brother, you are absolutely right. I grew up learning from KJV and I forget sometimes :)

        Comment by DaddyJoe — December 19, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

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