Cast members play a hand game called "Avocado" before participating in The Christmas Pageant at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Debby Baynes helps a cast member into her donkey costume before The Christmas Pageant at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A cast member looks at her family from a pew before participating in The Christmas Pageant during service at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Children put on The Christmas Pageant during service at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Cast members play a hand game called "Avocado" before participating in The Christmas Pageant at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

It is 8:30 a.m. on the Sunday before Christmas, and all is calm in the sanctuary of the Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley.

There, spread out through teeming halls, children's classrooms and every available space, there is an animated din. Nearly three dozen buzzing children are doing their darnedest to stifle a squirm so that an adult can adjust a shepherd's frock, a wise man's mantle or a donkey head. 



It is the morning of The Christmas Pageant, half an hour before go time. A team of around 15 intrepid teachers, parents and youth ministry leaders are on hand to wrangle holiday-jittery children into a collective ensemble befitting for welcoming the newborn savior king. 

At a quick glance, it looks like that might just call for a Christmas miracle. The toddlers, who assume the roles of the manger animals, are far more interested in playing with a plastic kiddie kitchen and serving up what appears to be paper Thanksgiving leftovers. 

A battle breaks out among the shepherds wielding sizable plastic staffs. Two angels play a hand game called Avocado, resulting in one being renamed Eggy Face. A gleaming gold Star of Bethlehem with a pointed hat and hands prompts a teacher to crave Hardee's. Another shepherd clarifies that he would not actually want to go back to that time, on account of the dinosaurs. 

But for ye of little faith, no worries. Year after year, decade after decade, St. Andrew's has pulled off their pageant. According to Brad Nettles Jr., the church's director of youth ministry, the annual production has taken to the altar since he himself first became involved in it in his own youth, as he has attended St. Andrew's since elementary school.

Debby Baynes helps a cast member into her donkey costume before The Christmas Pageant at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

His colleague Anne Shaul, the church's director of children's education, concurs, calmly assuring that there is method to the mayhem.

"It is organized chaos," she says. The organized part is compliments of a tried-and-true system of Tupperware containers that sort and store all the outfits. They are retrieved each season, with staff regularly replacing costumes as needed. There are also always a few extras on hand that morning, should a child or two unexpectedly show up. 

On the front lines, the participating adults know a thing or two about Christmas Pageant crisis management. Take Christina Little, a teacher and parent who booms out marching orders to a camel and company who are sitting at a table snacking on goldfish crackers.

From there, she moves to more important show business. "Restroom check! Speak now or forever hold it!" When it is time for the kids to take their places in the church, they are commanded to fall in line. 

A cast member looks at her family from a pew before participating in The Christmas Pageant during service at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

And, lo and behold, it is a proper Christmas Pageant in all its glory, folding out the story of Christ's birth and folding in songs like "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "Away in a Manger" and "Greensleeves." 

Tweens and teens take their turn at the pulpit, relaying the meaning of the lighting of the advent candles and reading passages from John and Luke and Matthew.

Meanwhile, a toddling sheep takes a runner, only to be swooped up by a nearby minder. Life imitates art as Mary gently cares for the baby doll Jesus when a bona fide infant in a pew lets loose a terrific wail.

The Rev. Marshall Huey — Father Marshall, as he is called — holds their attention by producing a candy cane, showing the cast and congregation that it looks like a shepherd's staff held one way and a "J" for Jesus when turned the other. 

Children put on The Christmas Pageant during service at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The packed pews, sporting plenty of holiday red and green, took it all in, as others had done year after year in the historic church that was founded in 1706. Now, though, they sat with phones primed for the rector's go-ahead for a cast photo opp at the altar.

And, once again, as phones zoomed in and kids beamed out, Jesus was warmly welcomed, and calamity averted, for a fleeting, blessed moment of pint-sized, heavenly peace. 

Children get ready to participate in a Christmas pageant at Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley on Sunday, December 22, 2019.

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Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.

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