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Mayhem in the Manger

The shepherds don’t know their cues, the sheep is a menace and Mary is liable to drop the baby on his head! We needed some Christmas angels to get through this play.

Christian Clayton's illustration of a Christmas pageant

It had been a long time since I’d been in a Christmas play. Believe me, I hadn’t missed it. At 16 I did not want to get onstage with a bunch of kids.

So I wasn’t too enthusiastic when Angie, our Sunday school director, handed out scripts to The Fumbly Bumbly Angels. I gave it a quick look. “This is about Jesus?” I asked. I hoped she was joking.

Angie put on her best just-be-patient face. “It’s more about the angels who tell the shepherds in Bethlehem about Jesus’ birth,” she explained. “Only these particular angels can’t do anything right, so getting the message across isn’t easy.”

Talk about art imitating life. Our cast was at least as hapless as the angels in the play. We older kids were the fumbly bumbly angels for whom the play was named. I was the airhead. My sister, Mallory, was our no-nonsense leader. Mallory’s friend, Bailey, was a Southern belle. Then there was Adam, a six-foot-two science geek, who was supposed to be supercool. (Not.)

The four of us were in charge of corralling a dozen other kids as young as five. We had to get them to their places, help them learn the songs, keep them in costume.

“Have y’all seen Malcolm?” I asked Mallory and Bailey at the end of our first practice. My five-year-old cousin, who was playing a sheep, was more trouble than all the other kids put together. Every time I turned around he was off and running. Mallory and Bailey just giggled, which was all they ever did when they were together.

“I think I saw him chasing the wise men,” said Adam. Sure enough, our three young kings came barreling into the sanctuary followed by Malcolm, the attack sheep. I grabbed him up in my arms. “Arf! Arf!” said Malcolm.

“You’re a sheep,” I told him for the millionth time. “Sheep say baaaah.”

“Baaaaaaah,” yelled Malcolm as I carried him, squirming, onto the stage.

“Now sit still in that manger and you’ll see the baby Jesus,” I said.

“No!” Malcolm said. He jumped out of the manger and bumped right into Mary, a shy girl of about seven. She dropped the doll we were using for baby Jesus and our lord bounced headfirst onto the floor. “Oops!” said Malcolm, picking him up by the leg. He didn’t see what was so special about the baby Jesus. Of course he didn’t. Not with us ruining the whole story.

At the next rehearsal we got fitted for our costumes. “These are your wings,” Angie said. She pulled out two huge, glittery, feathered things.

“Great,” I mumbled. Nobody was going to pay attention to Jesus now—not with me in this getup. Could I possibly look more silly?

“Here’s your halo,” said Angie. Yes, I could look more silly.

Malcolm was next. He hopped up on the stool to be fitted. Then he hopped off. On and off, on and off. “Malcolm, stand still,” I ordered. Angie pulled out his fluffy costume of dark wool.

“This was the only sheep suit we could find,” said Angie. “Malcolm will have to be the black sheep.” Oh, brother.

“Baaaah!” said Malcolm. Finally he had that right. Now he wouldn’t stop.

Every rehearsal seemed to go on forever, but on opening night I felt like we’d had no time at all to practice. “We’re not ready,” I complained to Mallory and Bailey as we put on our wings. “We can’t tell the Christmas story. The shepherds don’t know their cues, the sheep is a menace and our Mary is liable to drop the baby Jesus on his head again.”

“No turning back now, honey child,” said Bailey, batting her Southern belle wings. She and Mallory giggled. I took a deep, slow breath. God, please don’t hold this silly play against me.

We took our places onstage. The lights came up. I spoke my first line. “Do you think Archangel Michael will ever let us sing in the heavenly choir?”

“He will if we don’t mess up this assignment,” said Bailey.

Mallory flipped her hair. “Imagine a girl like me having to sing for shepherds,” she sniffed.

“It’s not cool,” said Adam.

So far so good. My ditzy character even got a few laughs. We were doing all right—until the fumbly bumbly angels got to Bethlehem.

“The manger’s empty. Where’s the sheep?” Mallory whispered.

Malcolm! I slipped off the stage and tore down the hallway. There he was in the nursery. For the first time in his life he was playing quietly—right when he wasn’t supposed to be.

“Time to go to Bethlehem,” I told him. “Let’s go.” I grabbed his hand and we ran down the hall, my halo slipping down over one ear. “Baaaah!” said Malcolm.

I put Malcolm in his hay bed onstage and joined my fellow angels. “We’re sure to get into the choir now,” I said. Wait—that’s the wrong line. The other angels looked at me in panic. Angie signaled me to go on. But I couldn’t remember what to say. None of us could.

Malcolm looked up at us in confusion. We were totally lost. The seconds ticked by. Nobody would hear the story of Christmas now. All they’d remember was four angels standing onstage like morons. God, I know this story. If I open my mouth, could you help me not say anything stupid?

“Uh,” I said finally. “On this night, the new king is born unto you.” “In Bethlehem,” said Mallory. “Bringing peace on earth,” said Bailey. “And joy to the world,” Adam finished up.

The fumbly bumbly angels sang “Joy to the World” almost on-key. The Archangel Michael welcomed us into the heavenly choir. Malcolm bleated at appropriate moments and Mary held tight to the baby Jesus. The audience gave us a standing ovation. Bravo!

I took my bow in my angel robe with my tacky wings, my crooked halo and a smile on my face. In the end all that really mattered was Jesus. With news that good, it hardly has to be delivered perfectly. The fumbly bumbly angels knew that. Now I knew it too.

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