The audience rose. The front row first, then the far left section, followed by the middle and finally the lazy bunch on the right. Agile young folk hanging in rafters cheered in whatever manner could assure their safety. Greta Gurney, when she was shoved off her hay bale at the end of the second row, defied her 7th decade and whooped from the floor with gusto as she hung on to John Hammerstone’s legs. As far as she was concerned, her grandson had stolen the show as the donkey. While carrying Mary, his knees fought with his burlap covering and he collapsed. Mary fell on one of the Wise Men who wasn’t supposed to be on stage yet anyway. In her tumble, Mary lost hold of her hidden bundle and experienced a premature arrival of the Baby Jesus.
After three seconds of breath-holding silence, old Mrs. Grummers, a retired teacher, broke into enthusiastic applause. She was joined by the Rev. Turner. Relieved, everyone soon joined the clapping and thereby encouraged the youthful entourage of holiness to finish their performance.
From behind the curtain, the children heard the crowd’s response. Tangled in curtains, costumes and courtliness, they trundled back onto the jury-rigged stage to bow and curtsey. They overrode all direction and reminders given by their teacher, Miss Twongson. Reverence forgotten, they were determined to be seen by friend, family and foe. The curtain call became an undertow of chaos and joy. Costumes askew, Baby Jesus missing, Mary pushing Joseph out of her way, each child confirmed eye contact with at least one important person.
The annual Christmas concert held in the tiny Red Valley one-room school was the jump-start to Christmas. It assured everyone of a Christmas spirit in spite of crop failure, broken machinery, a poor garden or sick animals. It was a time everyone came together peacefully and, with quiet pride, shared the fruits of loin, labour and livelihood. Past hurts, indiscretions and injustices faded and were nearly diminished as bodies squeezed together atop rows of hay bales.
Men, used to tending home fires and feeling nervous in crowds, over-stocked the tall black furnace at the back of the school room. Waves of heat caused someone to finally open the school door for relief. Windows free from ice were slid up and down in defense of heat and muskiness from sweat-soaked clothing usually in moth balls.
Standing in the shadows to the right of the stage, an exhausted and relieved teacher, Miss Twongson, heard the rev of appreciation, “Misty! Misty! Misty!” She smiled at the familiarity encouraged by Christmas festivities. To her face, they would address her as “Miss T”. She found the slit in the curtain, stood stage center and bowed.
She looked over familiar people standing regally in spite of hardship and travesty. As exhausted as she was, as difficult as it would be to travel to her family through winter’s harshness and as tumultuous as it was to put this concert together, she saw how this tincture of culture and creativity provided a window of colour, hilarity and confirmed oneness to these kind, loving and humble people.
She signaled them to sit. Directions were needed to have bales cleared to each side of the schoolroom and a table set-up for food. She wanted everyone to sit while a large cast iron kettle of chicken noodle soup was brought down from the top of the tall furnace.
She began, “First, thank you all for coming! The children and I…” Miss T. felt a tap on her arm. She looked down at the smiling face of Gerald Gurney, grandson of Greta who, by this time, had been helped from the floor with neighbourly mirth and returned to her spot on the hay bale.
Miss Twongson whispered, “Just a moment, Gerald. Wait for me over there.” She pointed.
“No, I want to ask something.” He stood intently staring back at her.
Gerald remained by her side. “May I please ask my question, Miss T.?” His volume and deportment startled her.
She sensed this question was of such substance it would be heard if Santa himself suddenly appeared.
“Okay, Gerald, what is it?”
Gerald looked over the crowd until he found his grandmother. He watched her face for reassurance as he said, “Since we’re all children of God, how come all our birthdays aren’t celebrated like this?”
“Well, Gerald…,” Miss Twongson was about to placate Gerald until she saw Rev. Turner nodding with assent. “What makes you ask such a good question?” she said.
“Gramma told me what people believe doesn’t matter. We’re ‘sposed help each other ’cause we’re all children of God. Rev. Turner calls Jesus the son of God. We’re ‘sposed to be like him. So aren’t we the same as Jesus?”
Grandma Greta’s smile encouraged him to continue. “My mom says no matter what we’re doin’ – workin’, playin’ or goin’ somewhere – the most important thing is to be loving and kind. Jesus did that… with people, animals and the world. We do that too. We always help each other. We’re ‘sposed to. It’s just good.”
He paused like a professional.
“So here’s my question. Why do we have this big birthday party for Jesus and not for each other? And what about the people from other religions who love God, but don’t have a Jesus? They’re still children of God.”
Only the crackling of burning wood was heard.
Miss Twongson shot a pleading look toward Rev. Turner. He smiled and nodded. When she gestured that he come forward he shook his head and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “It’s your show.”
“Well…Gerald…that’s a lot to think about…”
Gerald continued talking to the people, “Tonight, we showed you the way Jesus was born. Since we don’t have time to hear how everyone was born, can we sing happy birthday to ourselves? Then we can pretend the food is a birthday cake for Jesus and us?”
“Ummm…” Miss Twongson could hardly believe this was her grade three student who had more trouble with reading and arithmetic than most. She looked at the crowd, “What do you think? Want to do a rousing version of Happy Birthday before we eat?”
The piano teacher, Mrs. Goodland, rushed up to the piano as though she was prepared to play Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto.
Mr. Tyler, leader for the church’s choir, zigzagged through bodies and joined Miss T. and Gerald on stage.
“We’re going to change the words just a little,” said Mr. Tyler. “It serves to capture the spirit of Gerald’s message. Here’s how it will go:
Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to me, Happy birthday to God’s children, Loving kindness we’ll be.”
By the second round voices were harmonizing with voices. Smiles erupted on faces used to solemnity. Hands reached out to hold hands belonging to neighbours.
By the round three, ice melted equally from windows as from hearts.
Let the world live in the spirit of this child’s heart.