For as long as anyone can remember, the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury’s Christmas pageant has brought people together to sing, light real candles, and see the Christmas story played out. The pageant is a community gathering that reaches far beyond the Congregational Church’s membership — hundreds of people come each year to see the Christmas story live in the big barn of the Agricultural Hall.
“The kids are from all over the Island. You don’t have to belong to the church, or any church,” says Libby Fielder, church school director. “The kids really take it seriously,” she says. “It’s really quite moving. They do such a lovely job, and it’s very sweet and quite solemn.”
The church has artifacts of the pageant dating well back into the 20th century. Many adults in West Tisbury participated in the pageant as children, and in the past some of the roles were played by adults. The Rev. Cathlin Baker, pastor of the church, says that Skipper Manter told her, “I was a shepherd, but I always wanted to be a king.” These days, it can be surprising what the most coveted roles are. “You would think it would be Joseph and Mary, and the kids do want those, but it’s a surprise how many kids want to be the donkey,” Baker says. “Lately one of the most coveted roles has been the Angel Gabriel.” Gabriel is a top choice for singers because of the solo performance of “Gabriel’s Song,” a traditional Basque carol.
Music is a big part of the event, all leading up to the candlelit singing of “Silent Night.” Choir rehearsals take place at the Oak Bluffs School, and are led by Brian Weiland. Jesse Keller from the Yard helps with choreography, and Anthony Esposito does sound. In recent years, the production has brought in more tools and techniques of theater. Having a professional sound system has become a necessity as attendance has grown — 10 years ago, about 500 to 600 people usually came, but for the past few years it’s been over 900, and at the back of the crowd it was impossible to hear the children’s words without amplification.
Elle Lash is in her fourth year as director of the pageant. She has a background in teaching theater in New York City public schools, and also ran a theater in New York. “I’d seen the pageant before ever becoming involved in it,” she says. “Both of my kids did it one year, and I was very moved by the pageant.” Seeing all the people volunteering for it made her think that maybe she could help out, and she wound up directing it. “The kids form a community when they’re working on the pageant, and they do it for the community,” Lash says. “It’s important to me that they have a really joyful experience.”
Rehearsals begin with a reading of the Christmas story from a children’s book. Kids don’t necessarily come in knowing the story, but they learn it well. “Elle teaches them about making tableaus with their bodies, and how their bodies can tell stories,” Baker says. “What we love is that the kids really know the story; the joy and fear when the angels appear, the desperation of the donkey ride — all that, they get.”
The children range from kindergartners to 13-year-olds. Lately, there’s also been a real baby in the manger, which can lead to some surprises. “Last year’s baby was walking and talking by the time of the production, so it was funny to have a baby who wanted to stand up and say hi to the audience,” Lash says.
The joy of creating and performing the pageant isn’t free, though. Improvements in the production technology, hiring a police officer to direct traffic, and increased costs for renting the Agricultural Hall are a financial strain for the church. The initial move from the church itself to the Agricultural Hall happened about 25 years ago. It’s much better able to accommodate the crowds who come to the event, but it means that the church needs to pay rent for each rehearsal. A GoFundMe page is being created to help cover these costs.
On Christmas Eve itself, a collection is taken to support Islanders in need. The collection is split in half between the minister’s discretionary fund, which supports Islanders in immediate financial distress, and an Island nonprofit. In the past, those nonprofits have included the Boys and Girls Club, IGI’s community lunches, the Island Food Pantry, and others.
If you’d like to learn more about participating in the pageant, or supporting it financially, more information will be posted soon on the church’s website, wtcongregationalchurch.org, and their Facebook page
(facebook.com/FCCOWT). Rehearsals take place in the two weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. If you come for the event itself, expect crowds. And magic.