On Swans and Shepherds: Christmas Pageant Memories

twelvedaysofchristmas“The Twelve Days of Christmas” has always had a special place in my heart. When I was in the first grade I got to be one of the “Twelve Drummers Drumming” in our Annual Christmas Pageant. Having always attended Catholic school I had heard stories from my public school friends about singing “Frosty the Snowman” or “Santa Claus is Coming To Town”, so a foray into the land of secular music was something like a Christmas miracle. (What I didn’t know then is that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” may be just as religious as, say, the “Ave Maria”, but in a different and clandestine kind of way.) My mother made my drum out of an empty Quaker Oats container, which we wrapped and decorated. It hung from my neck by gold ribbon. It was the bee’s knees, I’ll tell you that.

We spent weeks practicing. Being part of the last verse gave me plenty of opportunity to witness the visual spectacle that bringing the song to life created. It also afforded me a front row seat to all of the “days”. It didn’t take me long to figure out that some “days” were better than others. (Ain’t that the truth!)

Even to a six-year-old, as yet unwise to the ways of the world, it was clear that the coveted roles were the golden rings. That year the young Marcia Brady look-alikes who snagged these parts were actually wrapped, toga-style, in gold fabric. Oh! My! God!

This was slightly troubling. I already had a complex about Marcia Brady. My hair was neither blonde nor straight. And my mother insisted on a pixie cut, which was the only way to tame its natural unruliness. My eyes, too, presented a problem. They’re brown. I looked like the wrong Brady: Mike, not Carol.

I came up with a plan. I noticed that the “golden rings” were fifth-graders, so I would have some time to grow, dye, and iron my hair. I convinced myself that I would be old enough to do these things when I was ten and also that no one would notice the eye color if I could perfect the Marcia Brady hair flip.

In the meantime, I took note of the many poultry-related aspects of the song (and how their players were being directed to act them out). I quickly decided that none of these were for me. (The swans being the notable exception— I’ll get to that in a moment.) I immediately dismissed the partridge. In our version the partridge carried a branch and a pear. Nary a snazzy fabric or a shiny ribbon in sight. The partridge was ho-hum. The only allure of the partridge was in its single solo and significant stage time— still, not enough cachet.

At least the two turtle doves “cooed”. There may also been some linking of thumbs and flapping of hands, to indicate flying, but that was about it. To Sister Maria’s credit, she made what may have initially seemed a brilliant casting decision that year. The turtle doves would be played by the O’Neill twins. What Sister Maria was unaware of (until it was too late) was that the O’Neill twins suffered from a severe case of one-upmanship. The cooing quickly got out of hand. The hand motions almost caused them to come to blows. Poor Sister Maria had no idea what formidable opponents Mary Margaret and Margaret Mary O’Neill would turn out to be. The O’Neill’s performance gave credence to the old adage “there are no small roles, only small actors”, but I was still skeptical about the whole turtle dove thing.

Putting aside the turtle dove casting fiasco, Sister Maria did make some excellent choices in the areas of costuming and set direction. (You were paying attention when I mentioned that the “five golden rings” were virtually wrapped in gold, right?) In a stroke of genius, the three French hens were outfitted with berets AND given makeshift French flags to pin to their shirt fronts. In addition, the three French hens were instructed to keep their hands behind their backs and bobble their heads in a way that suggested pecking. The beret alone was almost enough to convince me that the French hens were cool. Almost.

Even Sister Maria’s genius couldn’t save the four calling birds, though. She tried, God bless her. Apart from directing two of them to encircle their lips with their index fingers and thumbs while fluttering the rest of their fingers while the other two each cupped an ear— to indicate calling and listening, I would imagine. There is little else associated with this part of the song that I remember. I suppose she could have incorporated a bit of cooing, but she already had her hands full with those crazy O’Neill’s. Being cast as a calling bird was, obviously, to be avoided.

Sister Maria was either incredibly naïve or dumb like a fox. If you’ve had little contact with nuns it’s probably difficult for you to imagine their naiveté. But what other reason could there have been for her to expect that seven prepubescent boys could pull off “geese-a-laying” with a straight face? It probably didn’t help that they were instructed to pretend that they were laying eggs. Maybe she knew that none of the girls would ever mimic egg-laying in front of their families and the entire school. The boys, as it turns out, were the comic relief of the evening. I’ve always enjoyed getting a laugh, but not at the expense of my dignity. I wouldn’t be caught dead pretending to lay eggs. No matter how big the laugh.

The Swans, however, were the exception to the “Don’t be a bird in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ rule” I was cunningly constructing. They had headdresses made of white feathers. Truthfully, they were just paper plates with cheap feathers glued to them, but to me they were straight out of a Busby Berkeley number! The swans’ only stage direction was “to float”. So, they did. They just kind of meandered around center stage, as Swans are wont to do. They were beautiful. If my inability to look like Marcia Brady kept me from my dream of being a golden ring, I would settle for being a Swan. I knew that my normally craft-challenged mother could pull off something as simple as attaching some feathers to a plate. She’d managed the drum, for God’s sake. I even dropped a few subtle hints to my unsuspecting mother when we were in the Five and Ten. I pointed out the feather boas, examined their shoddy construction, and indicated that the feathers could easily be removed and glued onto something else. As I recall, she muttered something along the lines of “Removed and glued on to what, exactly?” “I don’t know”, I shrugged innocently, “maybe a paper plate.” It’s never too early to start planning for being a Swan.

Following the Swans, of course, are the Maids-a-Milking. They, too, had hats. Normally I’d have been all about the hats, but a boring bonnet is just no substitute for a feathered headdress. They also wore aprons, carried buckets, and got to skip. You really have to hand it to the good Sister here. One doesn’t normally associate apron-wearing and bucket-carrying with skipping. She got a little careless with the Maids, though. After the skipping she had them stop downstage, plunk down their buckets, and pull milk from imaginary udders. It reminded you that the Maids were commoners; it was suggestive of servitude. I would have been down for the skipping and I might even have settled for the bonnet, but I had to draw the line at the milking.

The Ladies Dancing might have held some appeal if Sister Maria hadn’t plum run out of ideas. I think she just gave up after the Maids. Or maybe there wasn’t much room left on the stage. In any event, they didn’t so much dance as they curtsied. I’ve never been much for the curtsy. Outside of meeting a monarch or playing Anna in “The King and I” there’s really not much call for it.

The Lords-a-Leaping and the Pipers Piping were reserved for the boys. Sister Maria really went out on a limb back in 1971 casting ganders to play geese, but even she wouldn’t use girls as Lords or Pipers.

I took my role as a Drummer very seriously and acquitted myself as well as any six-year-old with a Quaker Oats box tied to her neck with a gold ribbon could have been expected to, but I have to admit that I may have lost my beat here and there while I watched the Golden Rings and the Swans. Sadly, Sister Maria was moved to another parish and our Annual Christmas Pageant reverted back to The Nativity. I was cast as a shepherd. (I can’t think why. Maybe we didn’t have enough boys?) I got to say, “Hark! Who goes there?”

Having a line as a second-grader was pretty impressive, but still, as I laid there in the field awaiting the Wise Men and my one line, I couldn’t help but curse the itchy beard while I daydreamed of gold fabric and white feathers.

photo credit: 12 Days of Christmas