By Rosina Di Felice
For the past 26 years, a beloved tradition at Christmas Eve Mass at St. Benedict Parish in Etobicoke, ON has been the Live Nativity Pageant. While this year’s pageant will not take place due to COVID-19, we spoke to Fr. Mike Pace, SDB, who shared insights on its development and evolution.
What is the history behind this tradition?
I believe the first Live Nativity we did was in 1993 when I was still “Brother Mike.” It was my second year as a member of the chaplaincy team at Don Bosco Secondary School. It was also the phase of my formation called “practical training,” and, as the title suggests, I was learning how to be a Salesian from Fr. Dave Sajdak and Fr. Frank Kelly, who were also in the chaplaincy team.
Skits and plays are a big part of Salesian pedagogy because kids love to get dressed up and act. This is a fun and effective part of Don Bosco’s educational legacy.
I personally have a strong devotion to the Nativity scene, so the idea of creating a living Nativity was exciting for me. Putting the live Nativity on at Don Bosco Secondary School allowed us to bring lots of people into the true story of Christmas. This included not only the youth who acted and read, but also the school music department, who played Christmas carols, and the entire student body and staff, who joined in the Christmas assembly.
I believe it was in 1994 that we began doing the full-out Live Nativity at St. Benedict at the 5:00 PM Christmas Eve Mass.
Where did the costumes come from?
I designed and sewed all the costumes (Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and the drummer boy), except the recently added angel upgrade. Originally, we used albs for the angels and some dollar store wings.
I knew I did not want to use any of the typical shiny acetate material. I wanted a calmer look and hoped to create something meditative on a small budget.
The costumes were deliberately designed to be loose-fitting with easily adjustable length so they could fit anyone who volunteered to be part of the Live Nativity. A cord or wide ribbon around the waist helps to keep it all together.
Much of the fabric came from old bedsheets that got donated from a nearby hotel. I went to visit the manager and asked her if she had any discarded sheets. After I told her what it was for, she was happy to oblige and gave me two full big, black plastic bags. In addition, I bought fabric dye from a drug store and dyed the fabric in our washing machine in the Salesian residence.
The shepherds’ headpieces are dyed hotel sheets, kept in place with simple dollar store hairbands. And the burlap vest for the little drummer boy is one of my favorite pieces. It was just something I found somewhere. It might have taken from Fr. Kelly’s decorating supplies.
The fabric for the Wise Men came from two sources. The gold velvet cape and matching velvet crown used to be the curtains to the confessionals in St. Benedict Church. I found them in the rectory attic and repurposed them.
The long, light green veils that hang from the Wise Men’s crowns were sheers from the bedroom windows from the previous owners of the Salesian residence. Under the capes, the Wise Men wear discarded albs that were no longer being used for the liturgy.
I put the crowns together using arts and crafts supplies, Christmas decorations, remnants of fabric, and a glue gun I bought from a craft store. The green pointy crown that looks like a Hershey Kiss is a large Christmas ornament stuffed into a wreath made of thin branches.
The structure for another of the crowns is a ring of plastic cut from an empty bleach bottle onto which everything is glued. Last, the fur trim on the gold velvet crown used to be a rear-view car mirror raccoon tail.
I sewed all the costumes together in the sewing rooms at Don Bosco Secondary School, partly during the day, but mostly at night. I had no patterns and wouldn’t have known how to use them if I did, so I just let my imagination run free. It was fun. Fr. Jim Jeffcoat, SDB, of happy memory, was principal at the time, and he gave me all the keys I needed. I broke a lot of sewing needles and rode a sharp learning curve to figure out how a sewing machine worked. There were lots of room to work up there, so I had an ideal workspace.
What format for the Live Nativity was used and who got involved?
For several years, we did the Live Nativity within the Mass at the reading of the Gospel. When I returned to St. Benedict as pastor in 2007, we decided to create the pre-Mass pageant using Christmas carols. This made it more playful and prolonged. It was also a more “liturgically correct” formula. The choir director and I prepared a Christmas carol playlist, and the Nativity personalities came out in accordance with the song lyrics.
Over the years, a team of older teens and adults had taken over all the prep work: washing, ironing, storing, unpacking, and hanging the costumes; helping the “actors” get dressed, and calming their pre-show nerves. It’s a beautiful thing to see so many people willing to help and be so committed to this beloved parish tradition.
Were there rehearsals?
There are typically only two rehearsals. The first is to introduce the kids to the concept of “praying with their bodies,” helping them to understand that we’re not so much “putting on a play” as “visually helping everyone to pray.” The kids then pick their role or one is assigned to them, followed by a run-through of where they “hide” before mass, what their cue is to come out, and how to make their way to the Baby Jesus at the front of the altar from the back of the church or their hiding place in the Sacristy or confessionals.
A parent is typically assigned to each of the groups of kids at their respective hiding spot to help prompt the kids to come out at the right song. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus come up the center aisle; the angels dance in the center and two side aisles; the shepherds come from the front confessionals; and a swarm of extra angels fly in from the sacristy. Then we have hot chocolate and cookies. The second rehearsal goes in much the same way. Lots of fun.
On Christmas Eve, the whole production team meets in the Church hall to put on costumes, say a prayer, and take fun photos.
Who was assigned the role of Baby Jesus?
Originally, we used to use a doll for Jesus, but many years now we’ve had a married couple with their own baby to be the Holy Family. This is so special. Ideally, we get a newly baptized baby. The younger the better, because they tend to sleep right through the pageant. It’s amazing how the parents who get to be Mary and Joseph cherish this experience.
How have you kept the tradition alive, Fr. Mike?
Last year we introduced the Live Nativity to the Marian Shrine of Mary Help of Christians in Stony Point NY. I’m so grateful to Sr. Eileen Tickner, FMA from North Haledon NJ for making the awesome costumes and to Amazon for providing the angels’ wings!