I (Jodi) have a confession to make: I don’t like Christmas pageants. It’s not just the significant planning that they can require. It’s not even just the stress that they can bring on for children, youth, parents, and organizers at an already busy time of year. My biggest issue is that they can compromise church efforts to affirm children and youth as full members of the body of Christ by expecting them to perform for an audience in a church service. As well-meaning as pageants might be, they can unintentionally end up instrumentalizing children and youth.
In Favor of the (Thoughtfully Prepared) Christmas Pageant
When I (Sarah) heard Jodi mention her dislike of Christmas pageants in a Building Faith meeting, my curiosity was piqued. I have a few stress-related memories from my time as a Director of Children’s Ministry, like when I served pizza and apple juice during pageant practice on Advent IV after the church had just been cleaned for the last time before Christmas services. The sexton was very unhappy! But most of my memories include beloved hymns, familiar scripture, and the joy of church being filled with young people.
When Jodi explained further, I found that I fully agreed with her reservations. I believe we should be inviting young people to contribute to worship leadership in ways that genuinely honor their gifts and draw the full community more fully into the worship experience. When we ask children to perform during worship (whether by answering questions during a children’s sermon, singing, or taking a role in a pageant), we run the risk of making them the subject of adult entertainment. This does not respect their dignity or the capacity they have for worship leadership.
I also believe that Christmas pageants can be meaningful ways of recalling the story of the Incarnation. They can help the entire worshiping community prepare to encounter the mystery of Christmas. They can contribute to the formation of lasting relationships. They can bring joy to people of all ages. But what makes this distinction? How can we plan, prepare, and facilitate pageants in a way that respects the dignity of all members of the congregation and help us worship together during this sacred season?
Bringing Both Critical and Creative Thinking to Pageants
In our conversation, Sarah began to share some ideas for approaching Christmas pageants differently. I (Jodi) appreciated her creative solutions to address the potential devaluing of children and youth as worship leaders and contributors in pageant settings.
Therefore, we decided to develop this article together to offer different perspectives, to bring together both critical and creative thinking about pageants, and to suggest multiple meaningful approaches. We hope that the questions and ideas raised here will help your communities discern fruitful ways of reckoning with this tradition for your contexts.
1. Discernment Is Important
Taking time for discernment about if and how to hold a Christmas pageant is important. As rushed as the weeks leading up to Christmas might feel, even a short time of reflection can provide clarity about your community’s goals for a pageant and enable your community to evaluate these goals in light of the church’s mission, values, and current needs. When various concerns and interests, including fears of not being enough, loom large over an event like a pageant, discernment allows churches to name where they are, to listen for God’s call in this season of their life, and to assess if or how a pageant can serve all members of their communities, especially their children and youth.
Here are some questions to get the conversation started:
- What does the Christmas pageant actually mean to us?
- Does its meaning align with our church values and mission?
- Is it serving the whole community, especially our children and youth members, and truly respecting the dignity of these human beings?
- Does the pageant actually help us better understand and engage the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth? Does it form all members of our church toward love of God and neighbor?
- What does our community need this year during Advent and Christmas? Is a pageant an appropriate and edifying way to meet that need?
2. Many Paths Can Get You to the Christmas Feast
If a pageant isn’t right for your community this year, that is okay. That also doesn’t mean your church is out of options. A pageant is one way to the Christmas feast. Many other paths can get churches there too.
Here are a few possibilities you might consider incorporating into your community’s worship or formation this Christmas.
Offer a reading of the gospel birth narrative in the style of Lectio Divina, a practice that involves prayerful reading and meditating on scripture. Two resources that can guide you into the practice are this introduction on the Anglican Communion website and “The Practice of Group Lectio Divina” by Laura Kelly Fanucci on the Communities of Calling website.
Stations of the Nativity
Set up a series of stations with scriptures, images, prayers, or activities that church members can move through to engage the nativity story. Dina Widlake’s article, “A Storytelling Pilgrimage through the Christmas Story” (Oct. 22, 2022), provides a creative example of this kind of event with a focus on facilitating a “story-based pilgrimage.” The article also includes a number of practical tips and ideas that can apply to various styles of nativity stations. “Drive-Through Journey to Bethlehem” (Oct. 4, 2021) by Keith Anderson is another resource to consult for designing stations that people can navigate by vehicles.
Plan a short retreat at your church or online that gives church members respite from holiday stress and facilitates prayer, worship, and celebration. A helpful resource for designing a half-day retreat centered on the arts is Simone Monique Barnes’s article, “Create, Contemplate, and Calm: Hosting an Arts Retreat for Advent” (Nov. 2, 2022). Another article that lists a bunch of ideas and resources for retreat activities is “A Creative Mindfulness Retreat” by Fiona Vidal-White (Jan. 9, 2012).
3. Pageants Can Be Respectful with Intentionality and Preparation
For communities interested in doing a Christmas pageant, we want to offer some ideas for shaping pageants so that they aim to affirm and respect children and youth as full members of the body of Christ. Below are six recommendations for planning, preparing, and facilitating a Christmas pageant that serves the whole community, especially children and youth.
Naming What Matters
A good first step in the process of planning an intentional event or program of any kind is to name what matters. There are a lot of things that could matter about a Christmas pageant, like new costumes, memorized lines, no prep, or the ability of visitors to join in last minute. Decide what matters in your context this year and name it. It is especially helpful to be able to clearly articulate what matters about the pageant this year if you are making any changes.
I (Sarah) believe that one of the most impactful ways to combat the risk of setting young people up as subjects of adult entertainment is to make the Christmas pageant intergenerational. Invite people of many different ages to take roles in the pageant. Be thoughtful about the roles you invite different ages to take. For example, if all the shepherds are adults and all the sheep are children, you again run the risk of setting children up as entertainment. This is less likely to happen if people of many ages take a wide variety of roles.
Inclusive Decision-making and Planning
Consider how you might involve children and youth in the planning process. For example, you might select two pageant scripts and ask a group of youth to select this year’s pageant. You might even invite a group of young people (or an intergenerational group) to write the pageant.
When selecting a script, be mindful of the humor included. God created laughter, and it can be so good for the soul. But we do not want young people to be put in a position where they wonder if people are laughing at them. Make sure children and youth understand the jokes so that everyone can laugh together.
Offering choices is an excellent way of showing respect. Consider how you can increase the amount of choice offered to pageant participants. This might include: asking young people directly how they would like to be involved in the pageant instead of asking the parent, making sure there are less public options for participation such as painting scenery, or offering a lot of costume options (including none).
Communicating the Worshipful Nature of the Pageant
Part of what creates the dynamic of young people becoming the subject of adult entertainment is the response of the adults. It is customary to photograph, record, and clap during a performance. If we do not explicitly share the purpose of the pageant and our expectations for members of the congregation, people are likely to assume this is a performance and behave accordingly.
If people moving around to take pictures and videos or clapping would distract from worship, consider explicitly telling people when a more appropriate time for these actions would be. You can also approach photography differently by using this art in service of worship. For example, you can recruit one or two people — perhaps a youth and adult — to take photos discretely (with the consent of all pageant participants) and invite pageant participants to create a worship or formation resource for the community with the images.
To encourage the rest of the congregation not to be mere spectators of the pageant, devise a way for the congregation to participate actively. Include a few lines in the script for the congregation to recite. Invite all to come to the baby Jesus and offer their own expressions of reverence or celebration as if they were in the story too.
A Matter of Why and How
Christmas pageants can impact people of all ages in various ways. They can cause stress and anxiety. They can become a performance that hinders everyone from perceiving children and youth as full members of Christ’s body. They can also be meaningful worship experiences for all members. The key is why and how pageants are done.
Wherever your community may be in the planning process for Christmas, we invite you to explore the takeaways we’ve shared and bring your own critical and creative thinking to your community’s journey to the Christmas feast. If you want to make changes to your church’s pageant, you can always start with one adjustment. If you perceive a need for more discernment about the pageant’s why and how, you can begin to engage your community in that discernment through this year’s pageant for future pageants and Christmases.
The story at the center of our pageants is all about God identifying with children and empowering disempowered people. When our churches give that story a chance to speak and take on flesh — with or without a pageant — we all witness the good news of Christmas among us.