Every fall, just after Remembrance Day, Teacher dug around in the file cabinet for the play, poem, monologue and music books. It was time to plan the Christmas Concert.
First he and the older kids studied plays and chose two or three. Then it was time for casting – "Pick me! Pick me!" Somehow teacher got all the roles assigned and the newly dubbed Uncle Matt, Sambo, Mama and a tribe of others went home clutching mimeographed scripts with red underlined parts to memorize.
Teacher also picked Christmas carols for the whole school to sing as a choir. He chose my best friend, who was good at memorizing and reciting with expression, to say a monologue. The seven Grade Ones and Twos made a perfect WELCOME acrostic. I was in Grade Three and a herd of us older kids got to be in the drill – choreography to “Star of the East.”
We started working on it a few days later by learning to walk in a straight line. Then we practiced getting everyone to move evenly forward, then back. Finally we got to hold rulers as wands in an arch so that the end of the line could snake through it. Even after all that, when we finally added the piano we had to go over our dance again and again before our troupe’s movements were neat and we all ended up in the right place at the end of the song.
At costuming time teacher’s wife was waiting for us in the teacherage, with tape measure and pins. Over the following weeks, white crepe paper dresses took shape. Finally one day we could try them on – careful, don’t rip the paper, or stretch it! She’d trimmed the collars with gold sticker stars, stitched itchy tinsel around the sleeves and made a gold sash for each of us. As a final touch, our ruler wands were exchanged for thin wooden dowels that had big, shiny gold stars stapled to the ends.
About two weeks before the concert date came the most exciting day of school – the day the desks were lugged to the basement, the stage hammered together and the curtains strung up. That meant that our half-hearted efforts at schoolwork could officially end and the whole day would be spent working on Christmas!
Plays were torn apart scene by scene and rehearsed, endlessly rehearsed. Songs were sung and re-sung. Our drill was drilled.
If we weren’t involved in the rehearsal, teacher demanded silence and good behavior. To help pass the time, someone brought a spool knitting project.
"I need a spool," I announced at home.
Mom hunted down a chunky wooden one from thread. Dad pounded four small-headed nails in the top, found a slim shiny nail for me in his shop, I scavenged wool from Mom’s darning bag and joined my friends, making long colored tubes of knitting – worms that we eventually coiled and stitched into dollhouse rugs.
As the date of the concert came closer, a new urgency and excitement took over rehearsals. We needed props. Someone found the manger in storage and a call went out for a table, a rocking chair, a telephone. We did the program in the order it would happen on concert night so the curtain pullers and stage hands could learn their cues. When the dressing rooms became loud and disruptive someone volunteered, “We have an old quilt to put on the floor.”
"We have a cowhide," offered another.
And so teacher muffled the dressing room noise with these things and by the time all the props were collected and stored, there was hardly room, stage right and left, for any people at all.
The morning of the concert was dress rehearsal. Everything must be perfect. Usually panic struck around that time. Shouldn't the curtain be closed during the monologue, so that the stage could be set for "Uncle Matt's Christmas Discovery"? How could the row of drill angels enter on-stage through the dressing room when it was bulging with actors for the next play? Should the black-painted Sambo and Mama simply join the choir before having their paint removed?
We went home at noon so the trustees could come in and set up the benches for the crowd. The afternoon was a blur of anticipation and apprehension – I couldn't even concentrate to read. “Time for supper,” Mom called out about 4:30. My stomach, full of excitement, and had no room for food.
About forty-five minutes before concert time, we set out on the ten-minute drive to school – it wouldn’t do to be late. But we weren’t the first ones there. For our playground was now a parking lot and the small schoolroom was soon packed with nervous students, awe-struck preschoolers and smiling parents.
Finally it was time to start. As the curtain opened up to show the youngest students, holding their WELCOME letters, a hush came over the crowd. One by one, each said their little poem, then the audience went wild with applause and the tone of the evening was set.
How quickly the big night went by! Now it was time for my friend’s monologue and everyone laughed in all the right places. Now it was time for the choir to sing – my eyes darted from teacher's waving hands to find Mom, Dad and my little brothers and sisters. Now it was time to get dressed for the drill. And now teacher announced, "Star of the East"
We paraded nervously from the cloakroom, past the crowd and onto the stage. When the music began, our troupe, like parts of a wind-up music box, went into motion, making each turn precisely, each movement of the wand perfectly, smiling tensely at each other as we passed on stage. Then the music was finished and in a straight line we bowed our thanks to the cheering crowd.
Now, back in the cloakroom, we waited. Peeking through the door, someone announced, “They're on the last scene of the play!” Now it was time to join the others on the stage for “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” And now the concert was over.
"Did you like it! Did you like it?"
Never effusive in her compliments, Mom said, "That was pretty good."
Dad just smiled and said, "You did your part perfectly."
Then, in all the bustle, we found the place where the trustees were handing out treat bags with peanuts, candy and an orange – one for each child school age and younger.
"Don't crack the peanuts in the car!" Dad said, as we piled into the station-wagon.
The night after the concert, I had a hard time getting to sleep. I relived the magical evening and savored all the excitement again – relieved it was over, but wishing, too, that it wasn’t. Oh well, there was one consolation. Now that the concert was done, Christmas day itself was just around the corner!
This story was first published in the Essence Christmas compilation - Celebrating the Season 2001.