A Homemade Christmas Pageant Gave Her Hope

A grandmother battling cancer prays for something positive to focus on, so that she might be distracted from her health issues.

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- Posted on Nov 25, 2016

An artist's rendering of a family Christmas pageant in a barn

This Guideposts Classic Christmas story first appeared in the magazine in 1982.

Where did I get the idea of a family Christmas pageant? I don’t really know. All I can say is that when the idea came to me, I felt that I might never see Christmas again.

It was June. I’d just gone through major cancer surgery that hadn’t been fully successful. Once a month I would travel 250 miles to Houston for chemotherapy, and returning home I felt sick to death.

The days were long. My husband, Gene, is a telephone repairman, and we live on a hilltop in the farm country of central Texas. It’s a beautiful country, but I had no energy to go out in it. I’d just sit by the window and watch our horse loping from the barn to the shade of the mulberry tree. I’d lost my appetite and my hair, but, worst of all, at times I was too sick to care whether or not I got well.

My family tried hard to bolster my spirits, but I couldn’t seem to focus on anything. Then I tried playing a little game with myself. Get rid of all those gloomy thoughts, Ella Ruth, I told myself. Start thinking only good, bright thoughts. And when I asked myself what was good and bright, I came up with—Christmas, my favorite time of the year.

If only, I thought. If only I could feel that every day was leading me nearer and nearer to Christmas.

But what could I do? Start my Christmas shopping early? In the summer? No, that would be silly. Well, maybe I could plan a special celebration that would bring my family all together. And, of course, it should honor Jesus’ birth. I had read somewhere that cancer patients should set goals—and a Christ-honoring Christmas became one of my goals.

What I really wanted to do was bring the Christmas story to life for my grandchildren. Maybe a Christmas play… Yes! But how? Where? With what? My mind and body were weak. How could I put a play together?

I prayed, Father, I want to honor you, but you’ll have to show me how. I don’t even know where to start.

Slowly God got me going. Looking out the window, I saw our barn and thought, There! There’s the manger, Ella Ruth.

I knew what the plot of the play should be—it was right there in Luke. Then I wondered who in my family could play what parts. Right away I saw that we had a perfect Mary. My daughter Kristi was pregnant, due in February...and her husband, Bobby, had a beard. He could be Joseph. The angels and shepherds? My grandchildren.

There was my cast. But what would we do? Stand around in the barn? No. Somehow I would have to come up with a simple script, and so I studied Luke 2 and Christmas books for ideas.

And costumes. Did I have the strength I needed to make them? I really didn’t want anybody else to help me. I wanted this to be a secret between the Lord and me.

Go slow, I heard God saying, and I’ll help you.

READ MORE: CHRISTMAS WILL ALWAYS FIND YOU

I did take it slow. During my long afternoons, I would sit beside our old cedar trunk, rummaging through mementoes of wonderful times.

There was an old jeweled collar…how stylish I’d felt wearing this in the long-ago days when my husband and I were courting. Now the collar could be a wise man’s crown. A red-and-black afghan…here was a labor of love. Kristi had made it for me just before her marriage. Now it could keep warm a king of the Orient. Old elastic hairbands and old towels—sewn together they’d make headdresses for the shepherds.

My house took on new life, with all the objects in it calling out to be used.

One day, while turning a pillowcase into a shepherd’s robe, I suddenly suffered doubts. Was I setting myself up for a big embarrassment? What if my children and grandchildren thought this was a stupid, silly idea? Would six-year-old Jeremy take one look at his pillowcase and say, “Forget it”?

But the longer I thought, the more sure I was that my family—they were all a bunch of “actors,” anyway—would play along wholeheartedly. So I hoped.

A month before the holiday, I let my husband, Gene, in on my secret. I needed him to make “the star in the East” and the shepherds’ crooks in his workshop. When we made the drive to Houston for my chemotherapy, the fear was a little less terrible. Gene and I had pageant details to talk about.

Before I knew it, the holiday was upon us. I arranged to have all of our family gather at our house for Christmas Eve. They suspected something when I told them to wear warm clothes.

All was going well until the day before, when a heavy rain began to fall. Would we be able to get to the manger in the barn? I forlornly painted a king’s crown, looking up now and then to see the rain come pouring down.

READ MORE: THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS

The morning of Christmas Eve, though, we woke up to a clear sky and a brisk north wind. By noon, the way to the manger was dry.

During dinner that night, I was a bundle of joyous nerves. I could barely eat. As everyone began clearing the table, Gene and I exchanged winks, and then he slipped outside to set up the star and arrange things in the barn.

Dishes done, everyone gathered around me, waiting for me to spill my secret. But my doubts were back. Would everyone try to back out? I handed out costumes and printed instructions, not daring to look up to see how everyone was reacting. Then my son Mike quietly said, “Hey, Ma, I haven’t seen you this excited since…in a long time.”

I felt I’d just been given a big dose of bravery. When everyone was dressed, I began to read from Luke 2, and the pageant at last began to unfold. Joseph and Mary (“being great with child”) left the house and I told of their journey to Bethlehem.

With no room at the inn, they took refuge in the barn. We watched from the window as shepherds went out into the field: my daughter-in-law Donna, wearing an old quilt top and a towel headdress, and her kids Jeremy and Kerrie in old pillowcases.

Then “the angel of the Lord” (my oldest grandchild) came upon them. Tracy was wrapped in a white bedsheet, with a tinsel halo nestled in her hair. I flipped a light switch and “the glory of the Lord shone round about them.”

More angels—Kellie (Kerrie’s twin sister) and Stephanie—appeared. The angels brought “good tidings of great joy” to the shepherds, and then they all headed for the manger. I followed, leaving the wise men in the house.

READ MORE: A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE OF FRIENDSHIP

In the barn everything was dark, except for a gentle glow shining on Mary, Joseph and the Babe (a doll) in swaddling clothes. Gene was with the angels and shepherds, who knelt or stood in the shadows, silent in the cold night air.

I stood at the door and read the story of the wise men from Matthew 2. My husband’s handmade “star in the East,” a flashlight hidden inside a cardboard star, began moving along its cable toward the barn. The wise men (my two sons, Ron and Mike, and our family friend David Taylor) followed the star across the field, singing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

And then the wise men were with us, in their jeweled and (bath)robed splendor, presenting their gifts as an angel sang “Silent Night.” The grandchildren sang “Away in a Manger” and we all joined in on “Joy to the World.”

This was everything I had planned. But none of us could move. We all felt God’s warm presence in this cold, dark barn.

My older son, Ron, gently broke the stillness, saying, “I feel like we should pray.” He led us in a prayer of praise, and we sang another carol, and then another, all of us wanting to hang on a little longer to this loving closeness.

And in that closeness I no longer felt like the sick one in the family—I simply felt like one of the family. A good, loving family. I’d left my fear behind. My soul was full of light, a newborn light that God had been leading me to for six months. It was the radiance of the manger, a radiance I’d helped God create.

So you see, if you’re stricken by illness or misfortune, set some goals. Find something worthwhile to do. And then do it. Make a Christmas pageant or an Easter vigil or organize a bake sale. If you know a trade, offer your services to those in need. To get better, you often have to go out of your way. Don’t be afraid. Go.

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