When we were children, my friends and I eagerly looked forward to the Sunday school Christmas pageant. It was directed by our spiritual mentors who taught us the scriptures through story and song while our parents were at Weekly Worship. Rehearsals were held at the building near the church where we had our classes, which was also the venue of the production.
'The play's the thing,' declared Shakespeare's Hamlet. Had we heard of that hapless prince back then, we would have disrespectfully disagreed. We were less concerned with the nativity narrative than with who would enact it on stage. At variance with the humility of the infant in the manger, each of us wanted a plum part.
The central one was not available. Baby Jesus was a doll, and I provided it. Once more, the sin of pride reared its head. Although everyone knew that the lifelike little figure belonged to me, I would repeatedly affirm that it was 'mine', adding that I had acquired it abroad. I strutted around with it, reluctantly handing it to 'Mary'.
Every girl in Sunday school aspired to be Mary. Year after year, we hoped that our teachers would perceive how beautiful we'd look in blue, and, year after year, they selected Ramola.
What made her an intensely irritating - albeit absolutely appropriate - choice was that she resembled an artist's depiction of the Madonna. We knew nothing about Renaissance painting but reluctantly admitted that, with her creamy complexion, fine features and striking stature, Ramola was stunning. Worse still, from our envious viewpoint, Ramola seemed unaware of her attractions. Thus meek and modest must the mother of Jesus have been, when visited as a young woman by Angel Gabriel.
Talking of Gabriel, many who hoped to play that heavenly messenger were disappointed. Angels aplenty were required to appear to those tending their flocks at night, but, while everyone had a gown, only Gabriel wore a crown.
On the whole, we were a disgruntled bunch. The shepherds wished to be wise men, for the not-so-simple reason that the trio would be attired in glamorous garments. Joseph complained that he had nothing to do but stand beside Mary. "That is just what he did," explained our teachers. "He was loyal, loving and supportive."
"But I have nothing to say," the boy protested, voicing the general discontent. We might not have minded trailing around in whatever strange costumes we were given if only we had speaking roles. Unfortunately, there were not enough of those to go around. On one occasion, two non-biblical characters (traditionally seen in Christmas theatricals) had a significant scene. I was the wife of the irate innkeeper, who earnestly pleads with him that weary Mary and Joseph be given shelter, if only in a stable.
"Twenty rupees a night, and make sure you don't light a fire," growled my 'husband'. Half a century later, his words and tone resound in my memory. He is now married to my cousin!