In Praise of Pageants

Maybe it’s all of the Halloween hype, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of dressing up in costumes and pretending that we are something or someone else. There are plenty of arguments for why Christians maybe shouldn’t celebrate Halloween. It is, after all, a patently pagan holiday that tends to glorify the macabre. But if we put aside the ghoulish parts and focus on the fun of dressing up and getting treats, then the whole affair seems innocent enough.

In lots of New Church congregations, people dress up as characters from the Word and act out the stories as part of religious services. Some do this regularly in more informal settings and some reserve such performances for Christmas and New Church Day pageants.

As a child, I loved watching people in costume act out my favorite Bible stories. Sure, it was entertaining and it was more interesting than just listening to a minister read the Word and then talk to me about it. But it was always more than added entertainment value. I think seeing these characters and stories brought to life helped make me aware of the relevance of the Word to my own life. I got to watch friends and neighbors play these familiar roles and realized that the characters in the Word were people. They were like me.

When I was older, I started to participate in religious pageants whenever I had the opportunity. There was something so powerful about not only watching these stories come to life, but to act them out myself. So far I have played a townsperson, a shepherd, an angel, Mary, and even part of the Great Red Dragon. The variety has been a lot of fun, but really what’s struck me over the years is how it makes so much sense to have real people bring these characters to life from time to time—because they are our life. Every figure and event in the Word is a part of our lives. It’s all relevant. We are all Mary and Joseph. We have all faced the Dragon and Herod and sought out the newborn Lord and Church in our lives. It’s all about us.

And what a powerful gift to remind ourselves, not just intellectually, but with our natural bodies that we all have these beloved and notorious characters living within us as we regenerate. Something inside of us wakes up when the Word is presented in ways that engage more of our senses. There is something both humanizing and uplifting in seeing another person emulate Mary in the moment she accepts the Lord’s plan for her. That’s us. Right there. In religious tableaux and even in cinematic interpretations of the Word, we get to experience these powerful moments in a familiar and visceral way. Observing and playing these parts can remind us that they are really a part of us. And there’s nothing make-believe about that. It is so deeply real.

I’ve had the privilege of directing both the Christmas and New Church Day pageants in my congregation in Toronto for the last three years. It brings me such joy to work alongside the people I attend church with and weave together living images of such powerful correspondences in the Word. It never ceases to amaze me how time and time again the congregation can see past the pretend sheep and the electric star and decades-old costumes, and still see something precious and deeply personal in these performances.

I have occasionally met with some resistance about using words like “performance” when talking about religious services. It’s as if “performing” is an inherently secular thing, done purely for entertainment value. But if you look it up, the first definition of the word, “perform,” is to “carry out, accomplish, or fulfill (an action, task, or function).” I think we can take a cue from that. These kinds of religious performances are special and important because they remind us to not just read the Word but to live it.

This article is just my musings on the importance of religious performance. I would love to hear about how any religious pageants you’ve seen or participated in have impacted your spiritual journey. Do you find pageants particularly powerful or instructive or even distracting or harmful? What’s something you’d like to see done in tableaux or pageant form that you haven’t seen yet? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading mine.

About Justine Buss

Justine Buss and her family are currently based in Pittsburgh. She was born and raised in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania and studied theatre and English at Muhlenberg College. She spent her professional career working with young people in theatre and is now a full time stay at home mom and pastor’s wife. She stays in touch with her theatre roots by directing Christmas and New Church Day pageants, helping with school plays, and taking an improv class. She also enjoys singing, creative writing (including the occasional murder mystery party game), bargain hunting, and going on adventures with her family. She is grateful for the expressive outlet that New Christian Woman provides. It's so good to take the time to reflect on and write about the things that are on our minds and hearts.

9 thoughts on “In Praise of Pageants

  1. I loved this article. I am not a fan of Halloween mainly due to the massive amount of sugar nasties the children get. It’s a sugar fest… I loved Halloween as a child when we had to sing or say a poem or tell a joke to get something in return (as per the original Celtic Tradition).

    However, I enjoy the idea of religious performance. For some, particularly children as you mention in your article, seeing a story come to life (with real people) has a huge impact. They love Christmas and New Church Day, but I like the idea of occasionally having more of these kinds of ‘performances’ sprinkled in a few times during the year to keep things interesting. Particularly beautiful, poignant, or important stories from the Word could be told in this way.

    I think with the influence of media, children are exposed to too much stimulus that isn’t as real as seeing something at church performed by people they know. They are not concerned with the ‘external’ of the story (the old costumes or people they know), but are absorbed into the ‘internal’ of the story more quickly. The story then lives in them more fully.

    I’ve seen this in my children’s school here in Cape Town. They go to a Waldorf School and often act out the stories and legends they study. They do art, maths, english etc. around the stories they hear. In their 3rd year, they study the stories of the Bible.

    For Waldorf Schools the idea of Pageants is important. Instead of each term leading up to exams, each term winds down to a pageant. Michaelmas celebrates St. Michael and the Dragon and the children are reminded to look inward to find the dragons in themselves that they need to fight. Winter (June in the S. Hemisphere) is the festival of St. John the Baptist and is celebrated at night on the winter solstice with beautiful lanterns and a bonfire, singing and poetry to celebrate the messenger of light. We have the Star Festival/ Nativity (we are not all Christian in Waldorf Schools) – celebrating the Christian/ Muslim/ Jewish festivals at the end of the year.

    Each of these festivals is loved and enjoyed by the children and parents alike and lives in each person I feel for the rest of their lives.

    I think pageants/ festivals/ celebrations are an important part of the year and the New Church congregations should find time to celebrate once a quarter an important event or time in the year in the Word.

    1. Oh my goodness YES. I love what you said about children absorbing the internals when they watch these kinds if religious performances. And you have my creative wheels turning so excitedly for ideas about doing pageants quarterly. Thank you so much for these beautiful insights. I’m so glad I’m not the only person with lots of love and wonderings about this.

    2. I love what you’re sharing! Pageantry is like taking a moment out of a busy life to breathe, celebrate, and create a space for wonder, peace, and joyful insights.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Justine! I have always loved the picture of children in the heavens attending performances that help them learn about good and evil. Practice using our imagination at every age, it seems to me, is what allows us to envision a happier life that results from doing the hard work of shunning evils, especially when we may not “feel” like it. So we can strap on our “warrior” costume (against temptations) or our “kindness” costume, or a “patience” costume, until the Lord can make that external a real part of us.

    1. What a wonderful thought about donning different costumes to help us through difference phases of our regeneration. Performance can be so useful when it comes to breaking through the barriers of not “feeling” like it. Spot on! Thank you Sharon.

  3. So in fact not just “innocent” but downright use-filled, huh? I love what you say and I concur about feeling, seeing, experiencing that the Word is alive, is real, is now. As you say, “we are all Mary or Joseph” etc.
    I think this is a very worthy topic to consider mostly because I so fully support bringing the Word to life for people, but also because if would be interesting to sometime contemplate what forms of pageantry or aspects of it we would NOT want to embrace–what things would indeed to too much or be distracting??
    As far as people being nervous about “performing”, I wonder what exactly it is they fear? In a sense, even a minister giving a talk is performing…
    Finally, I wanted to smile back at you and shake my head in wonder about the way we are–over and over again–so moved by the fake stars, the everyday humans portraying Scriptural dramas, and the special effects that ask for a large suspension of disbelief! Somehow, so beautifully, the Lord shines through those vehicles and touches human hearts! Yay for Pageants.

  4. I enjoyed this piece so much.
    Yes, so these Pageants are so very useful and not merely innocent aren’t they?
    I can see that it would be possible to approach a level of presentation that was too much of a performance, but I’m unsure what that would be. I wonder what it is that alarms people? I mean, in some ways even a sermon is a performance.
    I love the fact, which you highlight so well, that we all are so moved over and over again by the fake stars, the human representations of Biblical images, the props of cloth and cardboard. Seems to me the Lord reaches through these human efforts to touch human hearts.
    A related topic in my mind is how children have so many remains instilled and activated by doing art projects about religious topics. Making a salt-ceramic diorama of the Easter story for example isn’t just a way of teaching the facts; somehow angels hover near the mind of the maker and leave an imprint!
    Thank you for bringing all these thoughts to mind and sharing them cogently!

  5. Justine, I had to smile when I saw the word “Halloween” in the first line of your piece. Oh how I looked forward to you showing up at my door on Halloween evening, dressed as a princess; or you performing in the 8th grade talent show as a can of tuna! Dressing up and acting out our heart’s desires comes so naturally to little children. Some of my favorite moments as a child were opening up the old trunk full of costumes at my best friend’s house, pretending to be someone else over and over again.

    When the Bryn Athyn Church informal services were just beginning we were inspired by community members acting out stories from the Word each Sunday. It leant a sphere of wonder and reverence to the service, for children and adults alike.

    You asked for times that touched us or were distracting. The most memorable tableaux service I ever attended was the first time they were performed in the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Growing up, our tableaux services were still-life pictures from the Christmas story, put on in the Assembly Hall where so many of our community events were held. These still hold deep remains for me. This first time the tableaux were performed in the Cathedral, we were guided to leave our seats and walk to the back of the building where Mary, Joseph and the Babe, lying in a manger, were in the dark and quiet of the natural little alcove in front of the west door. It brought me to tears. It felt so real and touched me deeply. In subsequent years the tableaux pageant has included scores of people and is accompanied by much more light, activity and music. I am always grateful that so many people leave the busyness of Christmas preparation and spend their time inspiring us. However, I will never forget that quiet tableaux that made me feel that I too was leaving my everyday life to go to Bethlehem and worship the Lord.

    I know it takes much time and effort to put on these pageants that we all benefit from. My suggestion to those who willingly offer us this gift, is to keep them fresh, by changing up the yearly ones, even ever so slightly, so that there is the element of unexpected moments rather than falling into the sameness that we come to expect. There is comfort and the stirring of remains in things remaining the same, however, there is also a livening and freshness when we get to witness something new. It’s just like life – a balancing act – which performance certainly is!

    To my favorite fairy princess, I appreciate you taking the time to write this piece to touch and inspire us.

    Much love,

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