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As children eagerly await the arrival of Santa, many are also happily taking part in reinforcing messages of love, giving and selflessness during the holiday season by participating in Christmas plays at their churches.

Children from age 3 to teenagers in high school in the First Lutheran Church’s Sunday school program will perform different plays combined into one Christmas pageant based on Galatians 5:22-23, a Bible passage in the New Testament. The passage reads, “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Shawn Maassel, the director of Christian Education at the Huntingtown church, said the Rev. F. Paul Liersemann preached about the passage for several weeks in the fall and the Sunday school students will “continue that and incorporate those characteristics as gifts of the Holy Spirit into our children’s program.”

Worship Arts Director Susan Dice said she proposed the idea of using the Galatians passage as the basis for the children’s Christmas program this year “by saying, if we’re not fruited out, maybe we could do this.” Once the teachers heard her idea, Dice said, “The ideas just started coming, and they were excited about it.”

Each class chose one of the fruits from the passage, Dice said, and created their own scripts for their part of the program. The ideas for the scripts ranged from incorporating songs to finger plays and dramas, Dice said. The class that chose joy as their fruit might sing “Joy to the World” during their performance, she said, and the class that chose self-control might have written a play about waiting to open their gifts on Christmas morning. Any costumes or props needed for each part of the performance will be created by each class, she said.

Both Maassel and Dice agreed that the Lutheran church values Christian education, children and worship.

“We welcome children’s participation in worship, so having this worship service being the children’s performance, I think it’s something to look forward to,” Dice said.

Seven-year-old Anna Kate Ims will be participating in her first Christmas show with the church this year. She said she has been to all of her practices and is most looking forward to singing in the choir. Anna said she has been “singing for a long time” and is excited to sing in front of the congregation during the worship service.

“I think it’s just fun to sing and praise the Lord,” Anna said, adding that she is in the show with several of her friends. “I think that’s fun, to sing with your friends and be together.”

Typically, between 40 and 50 children participate in the Christmas pageant, with a few last-minute entries the day of the performance, Maassel said. The children began their practice for the performance during their Sunday school hours in November, Maassel said.

“They’ll still have their regular lesson, but they’ll take a little time during their classes … to just kind of run through their part of it,” Maassel said.

Although everyone participating in the program likely puts in 10-plus hours of practice prior to the performance, Dice said she “wouldn’t even call it work; it’s just a part of what we do.” The final practice is an all-day practice, starting at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 22. During the practice, the children will “run through the whole program, and then they stay and we have pizza together and we do some other activities,” Maassel said.

Maassel said the performance will take place at 10:45 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 23, during the church’s worship service. “It’s the last Sunday before Christmas, and that’s the nice thing that we do with our children’s Christmas program … [it] becomes the worship service on that day,” Maassel said.

While having a Christmas performance is an annual tradition in the church, Dice said that each year, they “just try to be creative” when choosing what the performance will be about.

“You can purchase preprinted children’s programs … and we’ve looked at those before, too, and used things like that, but this was a creative idea Susan had,” Maassel said. “It fit well with what we were already familiar with. I think it’s a real good way to reinforce that and remind people this isn’t just a topic that we cover and then put aside; it can be incorporated into Christmas; it can be incorporated into our everyday lives.”

A twist on tradition

For at least the last five years, the La Plata United Methodist Church has had a live performance of the Nativity of Jesus.

On Sunday, Dec. 9, about 60 children, ages 2 through those in the fifth grade, performed the Nativity scene at the church’s 9 a.m. service. A live Nativity scene is a tradition at the church, but this year, it was shown “through the animals’ perspective,” said church volunteer and script writer Beth Madigan.

The main character in the Nativity scene, Madigan said, was the donkey because it carried Mary to Bethlehem. About 15 children had speaking roles, which included a cat, camel, sheep and cow, and they all talked about “what they saw” the night Jesus was born, she said. The other 45 participating children had supporting roles and acted out what the main-character animals said.

“When they talk about Mary and Joseph, we have Mary and Joseph proceed down the aisle,” Madigan said. “Kids that are the animals in the play are narrating as the kids play Mary and Joseph.”

This year, when Madigan wrote the script, which she has done for the last five years, she included more speaking roles.

“I found out last year that a lot of children wanted to speak, so I kind of created more speaking parts based on what they wanted,” she said.

Sunday school coordinator Kerry Summers said that traditionally, the performance just has Mary, Joseph, the shepherd and angels, but this year, because the play was from the animals’ point of view, there were more costumes. “I think they’re all excited about that,” she said of the children.

Summers said when she was packing away the costumes from last year’s play, she found some animal costumes “that were used years ago.” She said for this year’s performance, she borrowed as many costumes for other characters as she could and her mother made the angels’ and shepherd’s costumes.

During the performance, the sanctuary was left the way it is and the children used a few props, such as shepherds’ crooks. “But other than that, we keep it pretty simple,” Summers said.

“We don’t have a lot of set up and takedown, and we actually perform during the worship service,” she said. “We have the manger for the baby Jesus … but other than that, we don’t really have a set.”

Madigan said the children were excited about the play this year. “It was hard to pick who would get to do what because a lot of them kind of wanted to do the same part,” Madigan said. She said if a child had a speaking role last year, she tried to give a different student a speaking part this year.

Haley Holcome, 8, said her favorite thing about being part of the Christmas play was having two speaking roles. This year, Haley said, she was the lamb.

“[My teacher] asked, ‘Who do you want to be? Who wants more words?’ — and I raised my hand,” Haley said.

Nine-year-old Mason Carney, who was Joseph in last year’s performance of the Nativity scene, said he was given the role of the “big camel” this year. He said he has been part of the Christmas performance for the last three years and his favorite thing about being in them is having a speaking role.

Although each character is important, Luca Silverans, 8, said he thinks he had the best part in the play because he got to “make big jokes” as the “little donkey,” which he described as the “second-in-command narrator.” In the opening of the play, as Mary was being carried down the aisle by a “big donkey,” Luca said he made the joke, “I bet she was heavy.”

Luca said all of the “animals were important” during the birth of Jesus. He said having the story told through their perspective was “different because everything’s different. The angel might say Jesus was a noisy baby, and the animals might say Jesus was a quiet baby,” Luca said.

No matter what perspective the story is told through, people need to hear it because it “reminds you of Jesus so you don’t forget about him,” Luca said.

The true message of Christmas

Many families are suffering due to the current state of the economy, said Avic Holding of the Patuxent Baptist Church in Great Mills, so the church is reminding people they can still be rich without having expensive material possessions through this year’s Christmas cantata, “The Richest Family in Town.”

The cantata, which will feature songs from the adults’ and children’s choirs and has a play with a cast of four adults, one teenager and two children, will be performed at 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23.

Holding, who is directing the cantata, said she believes “the Lord drew” her and her husband to that particular play “because of the particular situation the country is in right now, with the economy and so many people are so hard up. I think it’s a very good theme.” She said those who watch the performance will be reminded of what “the true message of Christmas” is, which is “the greatest treasure anybody could have is the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Music director Bruce Holding said the play, which is set in about 1949, is “applicable to today, especially now,” because it is about a woman whose husband died and who is now raising three children on her own. The story is told from the perspective of the oldest boy and is about a poor family that raises money for the poorest family in town.

“It’s in three different stages, but it’s really the true meaning of Christmas,” Bruce Holding said. “It’s what a family can give up to provide for others, and then the way the Lord just turns it all around. It’s amazing.”

The Holdings said they were keeping their props and set construction “simple” because they do not have a lot of room to have an elaborate set. Avic Holding said a church member volunteered his time to construct a portable platform to extend the front of the stage for additional room and is also making the backdrop of the set.

“But everything will be simple,” Avic Holding said. “I wish I could put an entire apartment or house … but we can’t.”

Youth choir director Bahni Schmidley said that because the adult choir was just started, the church decided to do a Christmas program with both adults and children this year.

Schmidley said the children meet every Tuesday before the performance and “practice, practice, practice.” She said she has given the children CDs of the music they will perform so they can practice at home, but once “it gets closer to the day” of the performance, they have a dress rehearsal.

The children’s choir was started four years ago, Schmidley said, and they were the only participants in the Christmas program.

“This year, with the adult choir, it’s a little bit different,” she said. “Last year, we did do this big Christmas play and music performance, and it was all the kids and that’s all it was. This year, I think it’ll be great because everyone will be involved together.”

Avic Holding said the program was “very balanced” this year because it provided parts for the entire music ministry, not just for children or adults separately. The Christmas performance is the “highlight” of the children’s entire year, she said.

“If we didn’t come up with something for them, they’d probably think something is wrong,” she said. “It’s something expected, almost. You still want to give excitement, though you don’t want it to be something routine.”

Four of Schmidley’s children are performing in the cantata as singers in the choir. Kelly, 10, Liane, 8, Grace, 7, and Hope, 5, all said they were “so excited” to be singing in the play.

“I think it’s nice,” Kelly said of being part of the cantata. “I don’t know the names of the songs, but I know one of the songs by heart.”

Kelly said this is the first year her sister Grace is a part of the Christmas performance and that she knew she was excited to sing in the play.

“We practice every day,” Kelly said.

Twelve-year-old Cassidy Tullos said she has sung in previous Christmas performances and is looking forward to singing in the choir with her friends, but she was a little shy about standing in front of the entire congregation.

“It’s sort of embarrassing,” Cassidy said, “but I like it.”

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com