Sunday, January 07, 2007

Twelfth Night

Okay, technically tonight is Thirteenth Night, but it’s close enough. Tonight we experienced the perfect ending to the Christmas season.

I have to begin by telling you that we live in a town of 20,000; by any count, that would be a small town. But oh, what a history! George Washington mustered the troops here to counter the Whiskey Rebellion (this was years before the Revolutionary War). St. John’s has been here since Washington’s day (though he worshipped at First Presbyterian, across the street), and it is as proud of its history as the entire town is. The Twelfth Night pageant is a long-standing tradition well-known in this community, and I was dazzled by the professionalism, the costumes, the pageantry, and the skillful music. We may be a small town, but we do pageantry Big Time! (We were told that 130 members of St. John’s, all in full costume, participated in this event.)

This was a performance of a medieval Twelfth Night banquet, with resplendent costumes, live music, a boar’s head and a Yule log. For years, people have been telling us that we Must See This, but we have never managed it until this year. It was fabulous, delightful, stirring, moving—a wonderful celebration to close out the season, instead of letting it die with a whimper, falling silently to the ground like the needles from the Christmas tree.

St. John’s sanctuary, which seats probably 400, was packed for the 5:00 p.m. performance, the third performance of the day. I loved just sitting there under the wood-beam ceiling, looking into a chancel which is 1/3 the depth of the entire sanctuary, walls painted the color of raspberry sherbet. Everyone in the audience was dressed up, with an expectant and excited air about them.

The pageant began with a sprite (a little girl perhaps five years old) skipping in with a lit candle, symbolizing Christ’s light entering the world. Once the Christ candle was lit from her taper, she was followed by a snare drum and two bagpipers processing up the center aisle, then four beefeaters (yeomen of the guard) in perfect gin-bottle costumes. The chain mail-wearing guards came up the side aisles at the same time.

The idea of the pageant is a play within a play. The master and mistress of the manor, along with their entourage of pages, lords and ladies in waiting and all the invited guests, assemble to witness the nativity play. So after the yeomen of the guard and the armored guards, we have the lords and ladies (who, incidentally, are the church choir) sashaying up the aisle and greeting the other guests (that would be us in the audience). They sing and dance courtly dances.

A trumpet fanfare introduces the boar’s head, flanked by torchbearers and followed by the huntsman, cooks (these are the second- and third-graders all in aprons and wonderful floppy cook’s hats, carrying wooden spoons) and other attendants. The herald sings the boars head carol.

Next comes good King Wenceslas, who has the most stunning bass voice I can imagine, accompanied by his page, a winsome girl with a lovely untrained voice. They sing their song and take their places among the guests. After them come the revelers—jesters, magicians, jugglers, clowns, and the children of the manor. Clearly these are the best parts, played by the older elementary school kids in whimsical jester caps and bright overshirts, throwing candy into the audience, tripping each other up, and playing pranks. As they assemble, everyone sings the wassail song.

Then come the woodsmen bearing the Yule log, with several very small children sitting astride it. One of them sucks his thumb while ringing a bell with the other hand. We all sing Deck the Halls as the Yule log is put into place. It is followed by the Bishop, a small child behind him hefting his cape, who is greeted warmly and respectfully by the Lord of the Manor.

Now all the guests are assembled, and the nativity play begins with the Lord of the Manor reading from the Gospel of Luke. Mary and Joseph walk slowly down the side aisle and up the center, and by the time they get to center stage, a baby has appeared for them to hold and adore. Tonight’s baby was about six months old, and he was fascinated with Mary’s hair, which hung attractively outside of her blue hood, and which he stroked reverently for a long time before succumbing to sobs which no one could quiet until one of the manor guests took him away from Mary and brought him to his real mother in the audience.

After Mary and Joseph came the shepherds (no bathrobes and dishtowels, but rugged woven cloths tied over their heads, and staffs which could have come right out of 1st century Palestine). As the shepherds kneel around the (wailing) baby, a star appears at the back of the hall. This is one of those beautiful illuminated 36-pointed stars called a Moravian Star, suspended from a curved pole carried by a beautiful boy dressed in gold. The three kings, of course, follow the star and lay their gifts at the feet of Mary, now bereft of crying baby, who is presumably contentedly suckling at the breast of his real mother in the audience.

All of these arrivals in the nativity are accompanied with song—not the traditional Christmas carols, but arrangements of medieval music and other seasonal music that is probably unfamiliar to most of us but that sounds really authentic. Once the nativity scene is complete, all sing with devotion, hands raised in adoration of the holy child.

The sprite reappears to reclaim the light, and as she skips back down the aisle she is followed by the whole entourage. The Beefeaters reappear, marching smartly to the front of the sanctuary and positioning themselves at the ends of the pews. At the command “Hats!” they doff their perfect Beefeater hats and proceed to take the collection in them, which will go to a local interfaith organization to help the disadvantaged. Following the collection, the entire cast reassembles for a final photo op (no flash allowed), and then they process out the side door to partake of a huge pie that came in with the boar’s head—I swear this pie was a good 24” across, and might have contained four and twenty blackbirds for all I know.

The audience, which was not invited to share in the pie, left through the sanctuary doors into a night of rain. It would have been more charming if it were snow, but it’s been in the 50’s and 60’s all week, so rain was what we got. I was between tears and elation all the way home as we walked through the raindrops.

I love my church and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, but I have to admit that I was envious of St. John’s and all the resources it can muster to put on this fabulous pageant. The children who grow up in that church must look forward every year to their own progress from Yule-log riders to cooks to pages to jesters, and then finally as adults to sing in the choir and wear velvet hats that look like cushions, and bodices draped with faux jewelry. My practical side says “What kind of a Christmas season do they have with all those rehearsals?”, but the spectator in me says “I love this!”

Perhaps the reason I enjoyed this so much was that I could be just a spectator, not having any responsibility beyond finding a ten dollar bill for the collection and fully enjoying myself. Call it a minister’s holiday if you will, but pageantry in church is what I love the best.


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