Oh, Holy Night

When I was 3 or 4 years old, I was cast as St. Joseph in my preschool’s take on the Christmas Story. It didn´t go well. A combination of nerves, excitement and lack of balance led to my falling off the stage and rudely interrupting our reenactment of the birth of Jesus Christ.

I’ve been waiting the last 20 years for a chance to redeem myself, and my moment finally arrived. A few weeks before Christmas, Hermana Nelly, one of the nuns living in Andahuaylillas, ventured the idea of my fellow volunteer Susan and I playing Mary and Joseph in a live, Christmas Eve nativity scene. Though the reprisal of my first theatrical role would not involve any spoken lines and would require my kneeling completely motionless before the infant Christ (in this case, a doll), I jumped at the opportunity.

Christmas Eve mass was set to begin at 11 p.m., so earlier in the afternoon, Hermana Nelly recruited Susan and I to construct the manger that would later house us. The Bible points out that the birthplace of Christ was humble in means. By that standard, the one we put together was historically accurate. After Hermana Nelly taped together sheets of brown paper, Susan and I drew shingles with permanent markers and proceeded to tape our work onto the front, outer wall of Parroquia de San Pedro, the church in Andahuaylillas. A cardboard box stood in for Jesus’s cradle, and loose pieces of grass took the place of the horse feed.

I was disappointed to learn that none of the local Peruvians were as thrilled as I was to participate in this production, which meant we would be without wise men and shepherds. Nonetheless, I could appreciate why mothers in the area had turned down Hermana Nelly’s requests to use their babies to play Jesus.

Around 10:15, Susan and I donned our costumes and made our way to the manger. Someone decided that Jesus shouldn’t make His appearance until after mass, so we knelt before the empty cardboard box and froze. Susan was wearing a blue headdress that looked similar to those often seen on statues of St. Mary. Padre Oscar, the local Jesuit, had graciously lent me one of his albs to wear, and Hermana Nelly had found me an excellent walking stick. For some unfortunate reason, however, she also decided I should wear a white, bandage-like strap around my head. This led to my looking less like St. Joseph and more like Robert De Niro in ¨The Deer Hunter.¨

Before we took our positions, I had been worried the people of Andahuaylillas might be offended that in a town of three to 5,000 people, the two people chosen to play the honored parts of Jesus’s parents were foreigners who hailed from the Midwest of the United States. But I quickly realized the intelligence behind their decision to forego involvement in our theatrics. 

As people made their way into the church, they would sometimes laugh and wave their hands in front of our faces. Perhaps they were checking whether or not we were alive, as I later learned some of the children thought we were statues. This bothered me less than a nose itch I was too proud to scratch and the uncomfortable surface my knees were resting on.

Eventually, Hermana Nelly temporarily relieved us of our duties so we could go to mass. When the time typically reserved for a homily arrived, I was surprised to discover that some of the local children would be putting on their own version of the Christmas Story. Apparently, playing Joseph meant more to me than I realized, because I found myself feeling a little competitive and, frankly, jealous. For starters, the children were allowed to speak in their play. Furthermore, the kid they had tapped to play Joseph was wearing an awesome red vest and the kind of head piece I had been hoping for. Finally, this production had a full cast, Star of Bethlehem and all. They blew us out of the water.

Yet my work was not done. After mass, Susan and I put on our costumes again, returned to our places–this time with Jesus in tow–and posed for some photos with the children. Deciding to be a bigger man, I told young Joseph how cool I thought his head piece was, so much so that I took my own ridiculous hat off.

As we smiled for the cameras, I pondered how playing Joseph wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be. No wise men. No shepherds. A Chuckie-like doll playing Jesus. Kind of a let-down.

But as I thought more about it, I considered that in some ways this might have brought me closer to the actual birth of Christ than the fun I was looking for could have. By common standards of what is noteworthy and glorious, Jesus’s birth probably seemed pretty underwhelming at the time. Take the location. He wasn’t born amidst farm animals because they’re cute and make nice characters in a story; it was because His parents couldn’t get a hotel room and had to settle for a barn. The Christmas Story is so ubiquitous and oft-told that it is easy to overlook how rough some of its details are. Maybe it was good for me to experience it in a way that was less flashy than my expectations.

After drinking some hot chocolate and grinning for a few more pictures, Susan and I took off our costumes and chatted with Hermana Nelly. I told her I would gladly resume my role in 2012, and I meant it. For the past few days, I’ve kind of enjoyed being called ¨San Jose!¨when I walk around. If nothing else, it’s a step-up from falling off the stage.

The Holy Family

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About brianharperu

A recent Marquette University graduate who inexplicably finds himself living and working as a Jesuit Volunteer in Peru, Brian enjoys writing, learning new musical instruments, imagining himself to be a better athlete than he is, eating pancakes and voting as part of his civic duty.
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3 Responses to Oh, Holy Night

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