Did you ever wear angel wings constructed out of wire coat hangers and tinsel? Or was it a shepherd’s costume that involved the most discreetly patterned bathrobe in the house, a pillowcase, and some rope?
The costumes may have gotten a bit fancier over the years — or disappeared entirely — but many churches throughout the city are still putting on some sort of a pageant, musical or another program this Christmas season.
“It’s fun!” said the Rev. Erica Harley, pastor of Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church, as to one reason why many churches engage in a bit of hoopla for the holidays.
The other reason is pure spirituality, she added.
“Christmas and Easter — it’s a big deal. It really points us to the foundations of our faith,” Harley said. “In Christianity, we talk about the mystery of faith — ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again’ — but, Christ was also born.”
SETTING THE SCENE
At Vance, festivities will take two special forms this year.
In one, congregants will stage a silent, living Nativity just outside their church building for the second year in a row.
“I’ve only been here about a year and a half,” Harley noted of how the event came about. “Ever since I came, I’ve been hearing everyone saying, ‘We have this great location. Everyone in town knows where Vance is, but we never take advantage of it.’ ”
Realizing the Festival of Lights at Oglebay Park often leads to traffic stoppages at their location on the corner of Bethany Pike and National Road — particularly on weekend nights — Harley said church members decided in 2018 to begin serving coffee and cocoa to festival-goers. The Nativity was a way of adding some, “We are a church …” to it.
The event will feature area residents costumed as central figures in the story of Jesus’s birth — such as Mary, Joseph and the wise men. There will also be live animals to complete the scene, Harley said, noting that actors will be seriously bundled up under their biblical-style robes.
“We’re praying for warm weather and no rain,” she joked, noting that not everyone viewing the scene is in a car.
“People from the neighborhood walked down to see it last year,” she said.
This year, the Nativity will take place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 14 and 21.
DO I HEAR ANGELS?
Costumes or no, music is also being practiced all over the city as part of the Advent celebration. At First Baptist Church, children’s minister Cindy Frank recently ran about 20 youth ranging from age 2 to fifth grade through their last practice before a performance scheduled for 6 p.m. this Sunday.
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With the pews empty, it was a great time to work out kinks of the sound system kind — and the juvenile kind.
“My bells are missing,” Frank said at one point, with a touch of panic in her voice. A small pack of pre-schoolers rushed over to “help,” trying to empty an entire box of percussion instruments before they were stopped, and the bells were located.
Once the kids had the bells in their own hands, and were jingling along to lyrics such as “the one true King” and “the promise turned to flesh,” they weren’t exactly eager to give them up. But, before the pre-schoolers exited the stage, Frank had all the bells back in her own hand.
She had clearly done this before. Some 20 times, in fact.
She grinned. “I used to direct my kids,” she laughed. “Now, I’ve got my kids’ kids in the program.”
The generational change isn’t the only one she’s seen. Recently, First Baptist has been doing children’s musicals for Christmas. That means scriptural and other readings instead of acting and costumes. And, track music with lyrics projected both on a large screen at the children’s backs (for the congregation) and at the far end of the church (so the kids can follow along if they forget a line.)
No matter how the program rolls out, Frank said a Christmas production always plays the same role. “It focuses on the joy and the true meaning of Christmas and focuses off presents and tree and the secular — although that is mentioned.”
Back at Vance Presbyterian, Pastor Harley said that is also true when the music is done on a grander scale — say with a 20-piece orchestra and West Liberty University’s Ryan Keeling as conductor. That what it will take for a production of the classic Handel’s Messiah that is in the works, very literally.
“Anyone is welcome to sing,” she said of opening the already 90-voice chorus to the community. She only asks that interested singers call the church in advance.
Anyone is also welcome to come to the event, scheduled for 3 p.m. Dec. 22. “It’s a free concert. It’s our gift to the community,” Harley said. “This music — it’s really inspirational stuff.”
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.