Staging the Nativity in the Museum

Christmas Eve is a busy night in Dawson City, with all four of the churches holding their own late evening services in honour of the coming holy day. However, they get together for the Christmas Pageant service, which is held in St. Paul’s Anglican Church, because it can hold the largest number of people.

There is much singing, led by the community choir, and a sermon delivered by one of the members of the clergy, while the others participate in readings and prayers. But the pageant, or Nativity Play, is the centrepiece of the service.

Telling the story of the birth of Jesus Christ in play form is an idea that dates from antiquity. Eastern Orthodox churches record such events in the seventh century. St. Francis of Assisi is sometimes credited as putting on the first Nativity Play (with live animals for the manger scene, no less) in 1223. The York Mystery Plays in England has had Nativity Plays as part of their 48-play cycle from about the fourteenth century onwards.

Readers of a certain age will no doubt recall dressing up in bathrobes and arranging tea towels as headgear when they were younger. They may also recall the backstage madness of trying to get the correct group of young actors to the right part of the stage-like area at the front of the sanctuary.

Until the mid-1990s St. Paul’s had a serious heating problem. It had to be warmed up for the service by noisy industrial heaters that had to be turned off for the service itself. It would be about 45 minutes before people (dressed in outdoor clothing) began to see their breath.

The live pageants were cumbersome, so the clergy and pageant organizers decided on slide shows instead.

The pictures were taken well in advance, and pageant shoot became a bit of an event in itself, with imaginative reinterpretations of the Biblical story.

Some years the shepherds became miners; other years they were tourists.

Settings varied, making good use of the historic buildings around the town. The Robert Service and Jack London cabins and grounds were pressed into use, as were actual hotels and businesses.

This year the photo shoot took place inside the Dawson City Museum, where wise men could be seen travelling to Bethlehem by dog sled, while shepherds and angels crowded the ornate staircase leading to the court room, and Mary and Joseph and the Babe posed outside the miner’s cabin display in the North Gallery.

Sixteen children from the various congregations met on the afternoon of November 24, along with half a dozen adults, to spend a couple of hours taking dozens of photos from various angles. The script will be read at the service, while the photos will become part of a PowerPoint presentation projected at the front of the church.

With a new woodstove and two auxiliary monitor heaters, St. Paul’s is a lot more comfortable than it used to be, but the warmth of the Pageant Slide Show still warms hearts the most on Christmas Eve.

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