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Fredonia, Kanasa:The Christmas Pagent

Fredonia has a Christmas pagent. It was started during the 1930s. If anyone in town knows the original author of the script, they’ve never said. Thankfully! It was the most kitchy dialogue ever written. It’s put on by the school system. Illegal? For many years, yes. After about 50 years of this, it was taken on by the ACLU. A loophole was found, and now it rocks on legally. My father, a lawyer, and I used to argue with my mother, a conservative Christian, about it’s legalities years before anything was done about it.

Understand, I cherish my memories of the pagent. Southeastern Kansas was settled by Scotch Irish pioneers from towns in New York and Pennsylvania. It was pure “Little House on the Prarie.” The remains of one of Laura Ingles’ childhood homes is about 50 miles away. The town names are Fredonia, Altoona, Erie, New Albany with the occational nod to Indian names like Neodesha thrown in. It’s overwhemingly waspy with a scattering of Catholics and Mennonites. I was raised in the Christian Church, but to really count socially, you had to be a Methodist. Forget minorities. The town had two black families.

Back to the pagent. Every spare minute during the month of December was spent practicing the music. Every kid in the school system, except for a few with very independent parents took part. Grades 1-3 had their own section of the high school gym bleachers. On pagent night, they stood to sing “Away in A Manger.” This was major entertainment for those of us in the high school band. Having a pagent at the start of flu season is risky at best. The band members ran bets on which little kid would throw up from the excitement or the flu first. Sammy Gillette usually got the honors. Then we’d try to predict how many would follow Sammy’s lead. The teachers spent most of the evening running up and down the stairs trying to get kids out of the gym before the worst happened. One teacher finally started bringing paper bags.

Grades 4-6 marched in singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” They got to wear white choir robes with black bows at the necks. Two sixth grade boys led this procession carrying candles. This was a job I always coveted, but as a girl was disqualified. The pagent was closed by the same group leaving singing “Joy to the World.”

Most of the really plum pagent parts did go to the girls. There was speculation every year about who would get the part of the Virign Mary and the Angel Gabriel. The yearly joke was that they would have to cancel the pagent because they couldn’t find anyone to play the Virgin Mary. There was also a host of little angels picked for the final pagent scene. If Gabriel was blonde the little angels were blonde. If Gabriel had dark hair so did the little angels. Every year I prayed that Gabriel would be a blonde to up my chances of getting picked. My grandmother, the junior high Home Ec teacher, was in charge of the angels. This did nothing to increase my chances of getting picked. I did finally make it in 8th grade. The angels were dressed in white robes with huge heavy crepe paper covered wings. They had wire halos that were wrapped with tinsel. I thought it was the most glamorous costume ever invented! The big pagent finale was all of the angels hauled up on to a tiered wooden riser with Gabriel at the top. It was painted to look like clouds. All of the gym lights were turned off and the stage was lit with blue lights. A high school chorus hidden behing the curtains sang “Silent Night.”

There was one great role for the guys. King Harrod! A better part for over acting was never written. The requirements for Harrod were a deep voice and the ability to wave a sword and yell “No little babe of Bethlahem will ever grow to be a man!”

After 12 years of practice, everyone who attended the Fredonia schools had the whole pagent memorized. When my sister and I get together, it’s obligatory after a few glasses of wine for us to start reciting Mary’s or the inn keeper’s daughter’s lines. Mary’s went, “Father, as to thee I cry to thee who dwell’s above the sky. Keep me from the stain of sin and let thy spirit dwell within. Hark! A glorious light from heaven I see. A holy angel comes to me.” The inn keeper’s daughter’s lines went, “Father, I had such a strange dream. I dreamed a king came to our inn and we had no room for him.” We usually start reciting the lines in restaurants with our husbands, imports from out of town, looking like they want to flee the room. It’s a bond only those raised in Fredonia can share.

Journal Comments

  • Vonney
  • Patricia L. Ballard