The first year I was asked, I was in fifth grade. A good friend of mine had told me minutes earlier that she hoped to be Mary in this year’s living nativity scene. It was the first I had heard anything about it. After she left, a kind-faced, older woman approached me smiling. She leaned close and said, “How would you like to be Mary in our nativity scene?”
I’m sure I must have answered immediately, but my inner monologue, even at 9, seemed to go on for minutes. I was still processing that we were having a nativity scene, it seemed so close to Christmas to just now be asking for a Mary. My friend told me she wanted the role, but how does one turn it down when asked to portray the mother of the Earth’s Savior? And, let’s be real, Mary will never be blonde. It might be the one advantage I had had as a brunette.
Instinctively, I agreed — though, I’m sure I stammered through it. She informed me who had agreed to play Joseph, though I had no idea who he was. She said he was in first grade. In an ironic twist, Mary would be 4 years older than Joseph. Not that I looked it.
To be honest, I don’t remember a lot from that first time. It all felt like a whirlwind of costumes, perhaps a single rehearsal, and then performance (consisting of sitting on stage, staring at a baby doll while someone sang). It happened very quickly and somewhat uncomfortably as I didn’t know anyone else in the scene. Presumably, they were all younger than me. And I do believe that my friend got to be an angel; again, she was blonde. I never found out if she was mad at me for taking her role.
* * *
I must have been Mary a few more times, because I began to expect it. I always went to small churches with my family and pickings were slim. But children’s ministry directors always knew they had an ace in the hole. A young, small, pale, brunette, and quaintly cute Mary.
I always pretended I didn’t expect it, but had anyone else been asked, I would have resented it.
* * *
The last time I was asked, I was a freshman in high school. I donned my costume, keenly aware I was now older than my character.
A few days after the show, my family had an open-house party. A young girl studied the nativity scene atop our video cabinet getting close into Mary’s face. She pulled back turning to me and said, “You do look like Mary.” I smiled widely, flattered, knowing that Mary’s depictions were anything but historically accurate. Rather, they were what artists and manufacturers assumed would be considered beautiful (read: white).
This nativity scene was different as it was not just the scene, but consisted of every character walking forward to give a monologue. I was completely giddy in rehearsals as Joseph was played by the boy I liked and truly believed I loved. He monologued about his returned love for me, and even though the words weren’t his own, my heart and stomach did alternating cartwheels. It’s funny to think of him married now to a girl he met at the school I decidedly turned down.
My acting experience left much to be desired and was restricted mostly to non-speaking roles. Here, mine was referred to as the pinnacle of the show. No pressure, Mary.
I rehearsed everyday on my own, constantly producing and replacing the worn pages from my jacket pocket as I took it paragraph by paragraph. I had to outperform the wise men, Isaac — who changed her name to Michelle and always said it with a rolling, affected accent, Mee-shell — and even my beloved Joseph. I was the start of everything.
The day of the performance, I delivered my lines, and returned to my place in the scene, silently cursing myself for forgetting a chunk of dialogue. I was told later that no one knew, and I “handled it like a pro.” I sat back down next to Joseph who put his hand on my back, and we stared down at the face of our plastic, marker-stained Messiah-child.
The one thing we never rehearsed truly was sitting in the same position for the entirety of the show. My back hurt, and pictures will show that I fell nearer to the ground and Joseph’s lap as time went on. The way I was sitting caused a sandal to cut off circulation, and the majority of my left leg was asleep for the better half of the show.
When we finished, the pastor called us out of the scene one by one to acknowledge our dedication and hard work to the congregation. I got up and smiled through the pain when he said my name, refusing to limp. I was, after all, embodying the woman who gave birth in the so-sung silent night. Pain was not to get the better of me, and, really, I wouldn’t have liked the attention.