I tried to tell Miss Julianne it wouldn’t work. Jimmy don’t have the sense God gave a billygoat. But he begged and whined and went on until she let him try it out at the rehearsal.
Jimmy are y’all SURE this will work?” she asked, her hands on her hips, looking up into the loft where Jimmy squatted, dangling a rope swing. Miss Julianne is the prettiest lady I ever saw. And just as sweet as she is pretty. She’s got naturally blonde hair which curls all by itself, she doesn’t even have to use a perm. She was wearing blue jeans and her husband Ronnie’s old work shirt. Anyone else would have looked like a hobo, but she looked beautiful.
Jimmy put on that stupid grin of his that makes all the girls swoon, I don’t see why.
“Yes Ma’m” he said, sugar sweet. Don’t you worry a bit. Suellen is just a little bit of a thing – we’ll just lower her down on this swing, me and Buddy, when Brother Paul reads the part about the angels coming down and then haul her back up after we sing Hark the Herod Angels.”
Herald, you idiot, ” I thought.
“You know I wouldn’t never do nothing to hurt her. It’ll be great, it’ll be the best part of the pageant. You’ll see!”
“Well, Miss Julianne said. “I still think it worked just fine last year, with us just dimming the lights and the angel climbing a ladder behind the manger. What do y’all think?” She turned to the rest of us sitting in the pews waiting to practice our parts.
I could tell she was weakening. That’s the only thing about Miss Julianne. Sometimes she can be too nice.
No one said anything. “Ya’ll, what do you think? “Still nothing. No one wanted to get into it with Jimmy.
” Well, ” she finally said, ” We got to make up our mind pretty soon so we can help the Ladies Aid with the decorating. We got a lot to do, we got to decorate the big tree outside, tie bows on all the pews, and clean up before we go. Remember, ice cream at the house for everyone when we get done. “
Wally was scribbling in his little black notebook which he carries with him everywhere and writes down what happens and what he thinks and I don’t know what all. He has a whole shelf in his bedroom full of his crazy notebooks. His mama gets them for him every Christmas over in Shreveport at Marshalls. She gets them wholesale since she owns Portia’s Blossom Shop.
This year Wally’s a wise man instead of a shepherd like last year. I should of got Mary, because why? Because I wouldn’t forget my lines is why. Last year Miss Julianne had to whisper almost every line to Georgia. At least I thought I should of got wise man like Wally. Instead, I had to be a shepherd again and wear a costume made out of a scratchy croaker sack with holes cut out for the arms.
Miss Julianne doesn’t get to say who gets the parts. The Sunday School teachers all meet and decide the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in secret, so no one can get mad because they don’t like their part. But except for Miss Lavinia, who’s real old and pretty much deaf, they’re all men, so they always pick the prettiest girl, even if she’s dumber than a stump. Which Georgia was. I know that’s not nice to say, but it’s true. She’s just pure D dumb.
So when Georgia graduated Junior High last year, which is the oldest you can be and still be in the pageant, I thought sure I had a chance, but this year Betsy got the part. At least Betsy isn’t dumb, but she’s not all that pretty either. I guess the best I can hope for is to make it to wise man next year. I don’t think the Sunday School teachers like me much. They say I ask too many questions, like the time I asked what a virgin is. Mr Grady got real mad and said I shouldn’t talk like that in Church, and I had to get Wally to tell me.
“Jimmy’s up to something,” I whispered to Wally. ” I can tell by the
way Buddy is squirming around. He never could stand up to Jimmy. Lets him boss him around like he was his daddy or something instead of just his cousin.”
“Afraid of getting beat up, more like, if he won’t do what Jimmy tells him to.”
“But what if they drop her and she gets hurt? And who knows what else they’ll drop down out of the loft? You know rats get up there. ”
He just shrugged. “Everyone knows Jimmy’s got a crush on Suellen. He’s just trying to impress her. But anyhow, it’s none of my never-mind,” he said making that pruney little face of his.
“O Wally, you make me want to scream.” I hate how uppity he gets sometimes. I decided if no one else was going to say anything, I ‘d have to. I walked over to where Miss Julianne was standing.
Miss Julianne? I said sweetly.
“Yes, Sugar, what is it?” she said, smiling and putting her arm around my shoulders.
“Miss Julianne, I just think .. “
Jimmy glared down at me from the loft where he squatted dangling the rope.
“I just think you’re right about last year, it was real pretty. Why do we need to do anything different?”
Jimmy hopped down from the loft and began winding up the rope swing. “What do you know about it, four eyes?” I was the only girl with glasses and all the boys teased me about it. They were pink plastic and ugly, and I hated wearing them, but I couldn’t see past my nose without them.
“Now, Jimmy, stop talking like that and let her have her say, too!” Miss Julianne said, the way she can always make us mind without yelling.
Everyone stared at me. I felt like I had forgot to put on my clothes or something. “Well, I mumbled, “I just think it’s dangerous is all.”
Jimmy curled up his lip at me. “You’re just mad cause you have to be a shepherd. You ought to be glad you don’t have to be a sheep no more.”
I wouldn’t admit it, but he was right about the shepherd thing.
“Please, please, please, Miss Julianne,” Jimmy crooned, getting down on his knees and making his hands like he was praying.
“Now, Jimmy,” Miss Julianne said, laughing. Am I gonna have to paddle you again?
He gave her a big hug.
I was sunk.
The night of the pageant it was cold and sleeting. I had prayed for snow, but just like when I prayed my dog Pepper would get well, it didn’t happen. Mama says the Bible tells us “Ask and ye shall receive,” but so far that’s not working for me. I must be doing something wrong. One day I’ll ask Miss Julianne about it.
The church was full up. People like the Banks who never go to church except on Christmas were there with their whole raggedy family taking up the front pew where my Grampaw always sits. This happens to him every year. He just walked over real slow to where they were sitting and stood there, thumping his cane on the floor.
Pretty soon, Miz Banks looked up and said, “Why hello, Mr. Henry? Would you like to sit here? Betty Sue and Darrell, y’all go sit in the back. Just you set down right here, Mr. Henry. So nice to have you with us.”
Grampaw acted like he never heard a thing she said. Just walked over to the window where he always sat and waited for them to make room for him. He sat down, wedged his cane between him and Mr. Banks, looked at the Banks bunch like they had cooties (which they probably did) and stared out the window. I think he sits here so he can see Gramma’s grave, but he’d never say that.
Mama and Daddy couldn’t get to their usual place, so they sat in back by the heater, which was actually better since it was cold in the church. I ran downstairs to the Sunday School room where everyone was putting on their costumes, carrying a dishtowel and one of Grampaw’s old canes. Mama said she’d make me a costume, so I didn’t have to wear the croaker sack and she can sew anything, but I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.
Suellen was prancing around the room in her angel costume, everyone going on about how pretty she looked. She had on a white dress with lace ruffles on the bottom lace on the sleeves with white satin slippers to match and was carrying a stupid wand, like she was a fairy godmother instead of an angel, going around tapping everyone on the head and cooing, “Bless you, bless you.” I thought I would throw up. I pushed my way over to the corner where Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie was helping the little kids into their sheep costumes. The sheep part is the worst because you have to crawl around in a boiling hot costume. They always give that to the little kids. They think it’s fun, they don’t know everyone’s laughing at them.
“Hi,” Wally, said, adjusting his turban and brushing his robe.” Want
some help with your costume?”
“I don’t need help, thank you very much,” I grumbled, tying a dishcloth around my head.
“That’s looks real nice” he giggled.
“Shut up,” I said, sticking my arms through the croaker sack. “Shit, his damn thing scatches! I said under my breath.
“Cricket!” Wally said, putting his hand over his mouth and giggling. “In the Lord’s House! You’ll go to hell.”
‘Well, if I do, I guess I’ll see you there, Mr. Smarty Pants.”
Mr Ronnie whistled and yelled, “Y’all be quiet, Miss Julienne needs to say something. ”
“I’m so proud of y’all! Miss Julianne said, smiling. “And I know you’re going to do great.“ Now lets go over the program just one more time so we’ll be sure. Everyone get your song sheets. ” Mr. Ronnie was passing out blue mimeograph copies that smelled like vinegar and the purple ink rubbed off on your hands.
“The first one is Silent Night. Now remember everyone sings this one. Then everyone goes behind the curtain except Mary and Joseph. Betsy, did you bring your doll?”
“Yes’m. I brought my nicest one, with the China head that I got last year for Christmas.”
“Oh, Betsy! You brought you very BEST doll,” Miss Julianne said. Isn’t that NICE, y’all?”
“Next the the wise men sing We Three Kings of Orient Are and then the shepherds sing While Shepherds Watched Their Sheep By Night” And I need ALL the wise men and ALL the shepherds singing, not just Wally and Cricket.
“No, you don’t, I thought. Wayne sounds like a dying horse, and Marvin’s tone deaf.”
“Then the congregation will stand and we’ll all sing the final song Hark the Herald Angels Sing, while Jimmy and Buddy let Suellen down from the loft. Just one verse now, of all the songs. Miss Martha will signal to you when to start and when to stop.”
Miss Martha smiled and waved her pudgy finger in the air. Miss Julianne put her hand over her heart. “Now Buddy and Jimmy, ya’ll be real, REAL careful with Suellen. Let’s pray before we go.”
“Good idea, I thought.”
We made a circle, joined our sweaty hands and chanted the Youth Fellowship prayer, “Lord, teach us to so number our days that we might apply unto wisdom.”
“And bless us as we carry thy message though this Christmas Pageant,” Miss Julianne added. Amen. “
“Amen,” we chorused.
We tromped up the stairs in a line and walked behind the curtain. The church was full and kids was sitting on pallets on the floor, mamas standing holding babies. The church was so pretty; there was flowers, candles, and big red bows everywhere and it smelled like pine and candle wax. Buddy and Suellen climbed up the stairs into the loft, Jimmy behind them. I thought I heard him say to Suellen, “I’ll show you a thing or two, you little tease.” She hissed something at him, but I couldn’t hear what she said.
“I knew it.! Why doesn’t anyone believe a thing I say?” I hissed to Wally.
He gave me one of his looks over his glasses. “What’s the matter with you? Are you still mad about the shepherd thing?”
Before I could answer, the curtain opened and Miss Martha plopped down on the piano bench. She’s so fat, we always think she’s going to break it and we all got out our song sheets. She held up her finger and started playing Silent Night while we all sang. Everyone in the
audience oohed and ahhed over the little kids. When the wise men came out, Wally was the only one singing, the other two just hanging their heads and sorta mumbling. Wally didn’t seem to notice. When he’s on a stage, Wally’s in hog heaven. Next it was our turn, and not only was I the only singing shepherd, Marvin and Wayne didn’t even know the words.
“This is the LAST time, the VERY LAST time I do this, I thought to myself. It’s hot and I itch all over; besides it’s embarrassing. I’m too old for this.”
And then it was time for the big finish. I felt a lump in my stomach. I knew something was going to go wrong, real wrong, but there wasn’t nothing I could do to stop it. Mr. Ronnie shined the spotlight up onto the loft where Suellen stood in her angel get-up. In spite of her stupid wand, she looked look real nice, standing there in her white dress, holding out her arms, her clothes-hanger halo sparkling.
Miss Martha started up Hark the Herald Angels Sing and everyone in the church stood up to sing with us. While we sang, Suellen started to come down from the ceiling on the rope swing – almost like she was floating. Everyone in the church looked up at her like they could hardly believe it. The whole church was quiet. Miss Julianne was standing off by the curtain, her hand over her heart. I think she was praying. I thought for a minute I may have been wrong. It really was pretty. But then some of the boys started giggling. That’s when I knew.
I looked up just in time to see Suellen fall out of the loft into the manger, landing with a big crash right on top of the Baby Jesus doll. Everyone started yelling and going on and Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie went running over to see if Suellen was OK. She was, all except for being fighting mad, scratched up and the sleeve of her angel dress tore plumb off from where she caught it on the manger. She was sitting up, picking hay from the manger out of her halo and yelling at Jimmy that she’d get him back for this and he was laughing his head off. And Betsy was fit to be tied. “Git off my Doll, “she yelled.
Sure enough the doll’s face was cracked where Suellen fell on top of her and her wand was stuck into the doll’s stomach. The boys was all snickering, Betsy was crying and Miss Julianne was walking around making sure no one was hurt. The people in the church was real quiet. But then there was another big thunk and Miss Bernice had fainted dead away in the third pew. She’s real bad to take fainting spells if she gets over-excited except Mama thinks she’s just putting on for attention. Miss Lavinia was fanning Miss Bernice with her handkerchief and Vonda Fay was waving smelling salts over her face, She uses them in her beauty shop for ladies who fall out from the permanent wave fumes.
Mr. Ronnie came running up onto the stage. “Which one of you knuckleheads done this?” he yelled, looking straight at Jimmy. Mr. Ronnie is a real nice man as long as you don’t do nothing to make Miss Julianne unhappy. I seen him grab Wilbur Spivey by the neck and throw him out the door of Vickers Newsstand just for cussing where Miss Julianne could hear. I remember thinking I wouldn’t want to be Jimmy right now.
Brother Paul was trying to get everyone to be quiet. “Quiet, Brothers and Sisters,” he kept saying. “Be still. This is the Lord’s house. There is no harm done. Let’s all be seated and have a word of prayer.”
Miss Lavinia and Vonda Faye got Miss Bernice back up on her feet and helped her out on the porch to get some air. Miss Julianne closed the curtains on the stage. We all looked at her. She looked so sad. I thought sure she was going to fuss at us which I can’t stand. But she looked back at us for what seemed a long time. Finally she sorta smiled. And then she began to laugh. At first we thought she was crying. But when we saw she was laughing, one by one we all started laughing. She opened the curtains and walked out onto the stage.
“Y’all, she said, still laughing. “I don’t know when I’ve seen such a
Christmas pageant to beat this one.“ The whole church began to laugh, even Brother Paul. Even Grampaw, who hardly ever laughs. Everyone except for Mr. Ronnie who was standing in the back of the church with his arms folded over his chest. After all the laughing died down, Brother Paul walked up behind the pulpit.
“Brothers and Sisters, “ he said, real serious-like. “Some of us here tonight have not understood what Christmas is all about and could have ruined it for the rest of us with their foolish prank. Luckily no real harm was done and I am quite sure that those responsible will be held accountable. Jimmy’s face was redder than Santa’s cap. But no one can ruin the Christmas story; it’s too powerful. It’s about turning sadness into joy. It’s about the love and forgiveness this community have for each other. Nothing can take the joy of Christmas from us. And we’ve had plenty of that tonight. Let us pray,” he said. “Let us give thanks to the Lord for a joyful Christmas.”