Sunday, December 20, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Medieval Christmas Pageants

I am guessing that in churches across the nation, Christmas pageants will be taking place--the third and fourth Sundays in Advent are classic times to have them.  Little children will take part in dramas that depict that classic scene around the manger.  Maybe there will be elaborate costumes.  Maybe there will be songs.  Will children wear animal costumes?

Will there be enough children to mount a pageant at all?

These musings take me back to a poem, "Medieval Christmas Pageants," that I wrote long ago, but it still holds up well.  In December of 2001, I got the happy news that The South Carolina Review would publish my poem, "Medieval Christmas Pageants."  It was a spot of good news in a gloomy Christmas season.  My mother-in-law fell and broke her shoulder two weeks before Christmas.  She lived down here, about a half mile from us.  I was taking her back and forth to doctors and playing nurse.  She was not an easy patient.

I remember getting the mail at my house, after slipping away to do errands.  I opened the envelope and read the good acceptance news.  I felt euphoria for a brief moment, and then it was back to drudgery. 

That poem became part of my first chapbook Whistling Past the Graveyard, which would arrive on my doorstep during the Christmas season of 2003.  I was so thrilled with that chapbook, and I think it still holds up well.

I dug out my contributor copy of The South Carolina Review a few years ago.  My contributor note says, "Kristin Berkey-Abbott has a doctorate in English literature and has been published in over thirty journals and reviews."

Let me take a moment to reflect on how much has changed.  When I submitted the poem, I was working a variety of adjunct jobs, and I'd had no book-length publication.  When I got the acceptance letter, I was about to start my job at the school where I still work; I wouldn't have dreamed that that teaching job would lead to my current administration job.  That administration job has led to many writing projects, blogging chief among them, and my memoir-to-be.  I could even make the argument that many of the poems in my 2nd chapbook, "I Stand Here Shredding Documents," wouldn't have been written if I hadn't been working as an administrator.

And now, I will have a third chapbook in 2016.

Christmas 2015 approaches, and I suspect that even the least spiritual amongst us may find themselves attending pageants so that they can support the efforts of the children in their lives.  This poem reflects my own experience.  I wonder if it still rings true to a twenty-first modern generation?

Medieval Christmas Pageants

The Sunday School pageant director embraced
the medieval ideals. Mary would have dark
hair and a pure soul. Joseph, a mousy
man who knew how to fade into the background.
Every angel must be haloed with golden
hair, and I, the greatest girl, the head
angel, standing shoulders above the others.

It could have been worse. Ugly and unruly
children had to slide into the heads and tails
of other creatures, subdued by the weight
of their costumes, while I got to lead
the processional. But I, unworldly foolish,
longed to be Mary. I cursed
my blond hair, my Slavic looks which damned
me to the realm of the angels.

I didn’t see Mary’s role for what it was: bit
player, vessel for the holy, keeper of the cosmic.
I didn’t understand the power of my position.
I could have led an angel uprising, although the history
of angel uprisings suggests that though whole new
worlds emerge, so do new tortures with the triumph.
I could have imparted messages of God’s plan,
spoiled all the surprises. I could just appear,
scaring mere mortals into submission.

Instead, I smoldered, smarting
at the indignities of mother-made wings
and long robes to ruin my long legged run.
I internalized the message of the culture
which didn’t offer starring roles for girls,
no head angel power for us.
Instead, the slender, the meek, the submissive
girl got the prize, the spotlight focused
on her kneeling knees, her bowed head.
I tried not to sing too loudly, to shrink
my Teutonic bones into the Mary model.

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