This story was written by Waco Tribune staff writer Jules Loh in the mid-1950s about the Christmas pageant that was held in the Central Texas town of Blooming Grove, population 730. Bob Vickrey received the story from a former Baylor journalism professor and is graciously sharing it with Circling the News readers.
They held the annual Nativity pageant here Monday night, and if it happened in Bethlehem like it happened here in Blooming Grove, Christmas would be a day sooner — or maybe not at all.
For a year, the good people of the Central Texas towns of Blooming Grove, Barry and Emhouse had prepared for the pageant. They practiced religiously, as it were, and sacrificed nothing to realism. The women made the costumes, and the men gathered their sheep. Somebody even found some myrrh.
The Blooming Grove preacher, a former tent show operator who was called “Brother Bill,” arranged the setting. The manger was in an old barn. A milk cow and an old ram were tied to the manger. At stage left was the inn; at the right were the fields where shepherds, costumed and holding long crooks, were watching over their sheep by night.
Brother Bill had put spotlights on both sides. These were to follow the characters as they entered. Miss Alva Taylor was the reader. As she read the Christmas story from the Bible, the characters would enact the passage. However, a few things were enacted that weren’t exactly biblical.
The choir began to sing, the reader began to read, and the pageant was on.
Out of a pasture behind the barn came Mary and Joseph on their way to enroll at the inn. Mary was riding a donkey with Joseph walking alongside. The donkey was balky. He kept stopping and Joseph kept yanking at the halter. Finally, right before they got to the inn, the donkey had had enough. With a grand bray, he reared back and pitched Mary right on her bundle of swaddling clothes. She landed on the ground with both legs straight up in the air.
The audience gasped. Some of the women thought she was actually pregnant. The donkey went down on his side and Joseph thought the donkey was hurt. The donkey wouldn’t get up. While Mary picked herself up, Joseph inspected the donkey’s legs, and finally deciding it was the too-tight saddle girth that caused him to pitch.
There was Mary brushing straw off her clothes, and Joseph loosening the saddle girth, and Brother Bill hollering, “For Lord’s sake! Get those spotlights off ’em! Shine ’em on the inn.” Mary was about to mount up again for another try, but the saddle was too loose, so she and Joseph decided to walk the rest of the way to Bethlehem.
Joseph stopped at the inn, and just as he was about to knock, the door opened with the innkeeper shaking his head. Mary had forgotten about the inn and was already kneeling at the manger.
The ruckus didn’t faze Miss Alva a bit. She kept right on reading and managed to stay about four verses ahead of the action for the rest of the pageant.
Then it came time for the angels to appear to the shepherds. At about the same time the spotlights shifted to the fields, and the choir began to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” the sheep spied the ram tied to the manger. The sheep started for the ram, and the angel popped up from behind some cedar boughs and said, “Fear not!”
And the shepherds were afraid. They were running this way and that, swatting the sheep with their crooks, trying to keep the whole flock from charging the manger. About a half-dozen got away and crowded into the barn next to the ram and began eating straw out of the manger.
Happy now, the old ram bleated “baa, baa” the rest of the night, which became somewhat disconcerting to Miss Alva. She disgustedly looked over at the ram, while losing her place, and then after finding it again, continued to read.
Out of the east came the wise men, slowly following the star. They deposited their gifts before the manger — all except one, who couldn’t get his vase to stand up on the straw. Finally, he got it balanced and stepped back. The old ram proceeded to step up and kick it over. The wise man shrugged and just let it lay.
Now all were in the barn — Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, the sheep and cow — for all to watch and meditate while the choir sang. But there was yet more excitement.
In the middle of “Adeste Fideles,” the loudspeaker began shrieking. And during the deathly pause as it was being repaired, the old milk cow raised her tail and let loose right in a place where somebody was sure to step in it.
Then the Blooming Grove Nativity pageant abruptly ended.
“Amen,” said Brother Bill.
And the audience responded in unison, “Amen!”
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns have appeared in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and was cited by the California Newspaper Publishing Association for column writing awards in 2016 and 2017. He lives in Pacific Palisades.