There was a snowstorm on Christmas Eve, and an argument in our house. By the time we finished dinner and Mom settled the younger kids with Grandma, everyone was upset. When she drove me into the crowded church parking lot, we were late. It was almost time for the pageant, and my special role as the Little Christmas Angel.
The teacher had shown everyone beautiful pictures of the Nativity by famous artists, so we understood exactly how the scene should look. Mary would wear a blue hooded cape, and Joseph would be in red. They would wrap the naked Baby Jesus in a white cloth. A bright white spotlight would shine on them. Everyone else stayed in the background. We’d rehearsed for weeks after Sunday School so it would be perfect.
My grandmother had made me a beautiful angel costume, with a long white gown, gauzy wings and a gold tinsel halo. I could hardly wait to stand on the raised platform in the background, behind the Holy Family at centre stage. Our choir would sing Angels We Have Heard on High. I practised spreading my wings and gently flapping them to cool the baby’s face.
I thought God would probably watch from high above the overhead lights and smile. God would know I was serious about my responsibilities. In my six years on Earth, this would be the most thrilling thing that ever happened.
When I arrived in the church basement where everyone assembled to go onstage, chaos reigned. My gown and wings were gone! Frantically, I tugged on the choir director’s robe and fearfully asked where they were.
Then I learned a sad truth. Because I was late, they’d assigned my costume and role to someone else. There was no place left for me.
“Go sit in the audience with your mother and watch,” said the director.
I was stunned.
It was Mom’s fault we were late, and she’d ruined my Christmas Eve. More than anything, I wanted to be a glorious angel! As I sat cross-legged on the cold, tiled floor, tears spilled down my face and left salty tracks on my cheeks.
A kindly Sunday School teacher offered an old striped bathrobe, and the handle from a floor mop. She said I could be a shepherd standing in the background. I reluctantly accepted, and tied a rope around my waist to hitch up the oversized gown. It smelled like cigarettes. The gorgeous angels organized to go on stage while I stared, sick with envy. As the pageant began, everyone forgot about me.
From behind the red velvet curtains, I watched the entire cast assemble before a packed audience. Ooh! Ahh! A polite round of applause broke out as they took their places.
I had no lines or directions to follow, and wandered onto the stage in an improvised solo performance. Strolling about, I pretended to search for something — sheep, perhaps?
“Baaaaah, baaaaah . . . here, sheep, sheep, sheep.” Feigning concern, I checked my Mickey-Mouse watch. Did the old-time shepherds wear watches? When I heard a few giggles from the front row, it occurred to me I’d made a mistake.
It was crowded at the back of the stage, and impossible to find a place to stand. The Wise Men, in their fancy crowns and long capes, elbowed me out of the way. Two boys disguised as a brown cow tried to kick me. I tripped over my drooping robe, and had to roll up my floppy sleeves. The angel who’d replaced me sneered and said, “Get lost, kid.”
There was a clearing in the middle of the stage. Heart pounding, I walked up to the Holy Family and knelt down beside the manger on a bundle of straw.
Our Mary was a young mother who’d brought her beautiful newborn child to church that Dec. 24, 1959. While her tiny baby wiggled on a soft white blanket in the little wooden manger, she beamed with joy. The baby gurgled and waved a chubby hand. I reached out and touched a wee warm finger. The babe smiled.
Attracted to a glowing light in the middle of the darkened auditorium, I looked up. It was my mother’s shining face, attentive to every move on stage. Our eyes met, and I saw her smile.
Afterwards, on the slow, snowy car ride home, Mother tried to console me. “Those angels seemed awfully hot and cranky up there. I could see them scratching, and they sang out of tune. It’s a good thing you weren’t one of them.”
After a moment, I said, “It turned out better.”
As the wind blew drifts of snow across our path, the world outside the car disappeared. Face tight with worry, Mother hunched forward over the steering wheel, straining to see the road.
Barely visible beneath their burden of snow, the twinkling red and green lights strung on our trees welcomed us as we pulled into the driveway. We were safe at home, and both of us took a deep breath. I reached for her hand.
“I love you, Mommy.”
She gave me a hug. “Merry Christmas, Sweetheart.”
Sharon Frayne is the co-chair of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Writers’ Circle.