As the nation welcomes new leadership in Washington, and our state health systems continue to confront Covid 19 with vaccine roll-outs, it’s important to celebrate what we have right at home: faith, connection, and fresh ideas.
This Christmas, PYM worship communities and meetings needed to reconsider exactly how to engage Friends in virtual or distanced Christmas celebrations. With the help of many people, including resources shared by PYM’s Youth Religious Life Coordinator, Melinda Wenner Bradley, Friends came up with the wonderful ideas shared below.
A Range of Solutions for a Variety of Celebration Needs
Making Christmas come to life within a community has many positive solutions. Here follow a few event summaries, along with a detailed story on Germantown Monthly Meeting’s virtual Christmas pageant.
Third Haven Meeting in Easton, Maryland, centered their Advent activities around four different charitable undertakings – each one done on a different week. This “Reverse Advent” over the course of four weeks engages a modern take on the Nativity story by gathering and distributing much-needed supplies to people in need.
For Friends at Third Haven supporting their Talbot County community, Week 1 was for non-perishable food donations. Week 2 was for warm things for people living in tents in homeless encampments. Week 3 was for household staples for residents of low-cost housing, and Week 4 was for delivery of baby supplies to newborns in Talbot County.
Haverford Meeting hosted an outdoor neighborhood “tailgate concert” with the soprano Rebecca Myers. She stood in the meetinghouse doorway and sang a cappella to Friends sitting in cars outside. Neighbors on foot wearing masks were also welcomed, as were individuals passing by. To amplify Rebecca’s voice, she used loaned ‘eco-system’ equipment developed for use by the Crossing Choir.
At the end of her performance, the community joined in Christmas carols led by meeting member Brenda Rose Simken. People also walked by lighted meetinghouse windows to enjoy the “tales of Christmas Mice” and the Nativity displays.
Fallsington Meeting did a virtual carol singing and Nativity story reading with additional readings from Bayard Rustin’s journal. Families also hung home-made peanut butter and birdseed pinecones on a “Christmas tree.”
Yardley Meeting hosted a “mitten tree” and also collected donated gift items to give to Mercer Street Friends’ families, while Middletown Meeting (Bucks Quarter) hosted a drive-by food collection.
Solebury Meeting sent paper invitations to each of its members for a virtual Christmas Celebration. They gathered children in person for a socially distanced reading, collected for a mitten tree, and then recorded the event to share after worship.
Newtown Meeting tasked a group of volunteer cookie elves to deliver cookies to some 100 households. They also invited their youth to record themselves doing a song, shared a pandemic poem, and hosted a “candlelight” Christmas Eve meeting for worship. The candle-light service was hosted by two Friends at the meeting house with video streaming to the entire community.
Westtown Meeting adeptly moved their traditional Christmas Eve program to Zoom, with readings assigned to families to share, singing together from homes, and a candlelight hymn to close.
West Chester Meeting decided not to try their traditional pageant online, and planned in a new direction by creating a “radio play” on Zoom using the Chuck Fager story, “A Quaker Christmas Story: Candles in the Window.” A member of the Youth RE committee used the story to create a script and powerpoint slides showing images from the story as it was read. The children took turns over two Sunday mornings to read the play — there were even sound effects assigned!
The Youth RE Committee also organized holiday “care packages” that they delivered to children in the meeting, which included materials to make and send Christmas cards to elderly, housebound members of the meeting, angel worry dolls, and bakery treats like the ones described in their play (which centers on an English Quaker family who owns a bakery during a war time — the Peace Testimony and mincemeat all in one story!).
Germantown Meeting orchestrated a virtual Christmas pageant featuring local and more distant child and adult performers. They shipped costumes to each household and used technology to created a virtual Christmas story with multiple segments and numerous performers. The three adults who created the production were: Carla Childs, André Robert Lee, and Kelley White. Kelley and Carla are both on the FDS committee, and André teaches Theatre at Germantown Friends School. Read below our interview story with the committee who made the pageant happen.
Interview with Germantown Friends Meeting’s Pageant Organizers
Carla Childs, André Robert Lee, and Kelley White detail their pageant process in the Q&A below
How did you first come up with the idea for a Christmas Pageant on Zoom? When did the planning process start?
Carla: We had been missing our First Day School students since March! In November, feeling inspired by PYM’s Giant Children’s Meeting, Kelley and I realized it was time to put something together. Kelley asked, “What about the Christmas pageant? “ We said, “We can do this! We’ll distribute roles and costumes, record a Zoom meeting of the pageant, and then use ‘screen-share’ to show it after Meeting on December 20th. And the audience can participate just like they always do during the singing and the Innkeepers scene .” I really didn’t know what we were getting into, but I figured we could learn.
Can you share some of the pre-event publicity your Meeting created about the pageant for Meeting members/attenders?
Carla: As soon as we had a glimmer of a plan, we announced it after Meeting on Sunday and put it in our weekly Meeting email.
How did families first let you know they were interested? Were they regular zoom attenders, or did they hear about it through the Meeting’s communications and sign up? You were casting children who lived in different cities to play different roles, including a real baby!
Carla: We emailed or called all the parents of the students in our First Day School group. A new family had just started attending, so we reached out to them. My two grandchildren in Brooklyn had been introduced to Germantown Meeting’s Christmas pageant a year ago. They weren’t able to come to Philadelphia to be in it then, but I brought the costumes home and everyone in the family participated in acting it out. This year it was going to be virtual anyway, so what did distance matter? They were eager to be part of it, and we could mail them their costumes. Then, around Thanksgiving time, one of our regular attenders showed up at our Sunday Zoom Meeting with a brand new baby! We don’t often get a live baby Jesus for the pageant, so we counted ourselves very lucky.
What supplies did people need at home to have their children participate? What costumes did they require and how were they sent?
Carla: We set up a Google Classroom for our First Day School and used that for our communications. We put the script in there, along with the rehearsal schedule and the cast list. Then we delivered the costumes to the actors around Philadelphia and mailed the costumes to the two Brooklyn actors. The baby Jesus’s parents provided him with swaddling clothes.
Kelley: Of course it helped that we had a script that our children were familiar with from past years and our stash of very simple reusable costumes and props that had been passed on and saved for future use over the years.
André: They also needed computers, speakers and a camera inside the computer. Luckily so many, especially the children, were familiar with remote learning and connecting.
How did you manage the rehearsals?
Carla: We scheduled two dates to prepare: one Zoom session two weeks before, to practice the different recorded segments and to practice recording them, and another Zoom session one week before to do the actual recording.
André: We made it fun also. We were a little silly as we practiced and did not take ourselves too seriously.
You’ve mentioned that André who is also a videographer and a theatre colleague at GFS was invaluable. How did that happen that he got involved?
Carla: I very quickly got cold feet and realized that I needed technical assistance. Who could be a better person to ask for help than André Robert Lee! André is a colleague of mine in the Germantown Friends School theatre department, and has been bringing his skills as a documentary film-maker to his work as a teacher during this time of hybrid and online teaching. I asked him if he could give me some advice, and he most generously offered to handle the technical aspects of the production. I practically fainted with relief.
André: When Carla asked me to do this I was nervous about doing it. Managing a Zoom performance is tough and stuff is going to go wrong. As I thought about it I got excited. It put me in the Christmas spirit. I also was thinking about how I could participate in the Meeting and be involved. I know it takes all of us to make the Meeting happen. This was my way to serve.
What was involved in recording and editing the pre-recorded segments? How were parents involved?
André: We had a rehearsal one first day and then a recording of all the scenes on the following first day. Editing was a little tricky, but we made it work. I teach filmmaking at GFS and I have had to figure out how to share videos with my students. We used an Apple software called Keynote to make the show work. We made a fun slideshow that was entertaining. I think it was received well.
Carla: Our very young children needed parents to assist them with muting and unmuting, but most of them could handle it themselves. André came up with the idea of having each child prepare or decorate a page to put in the Credits section
What were the stages in screening the different Zoom clips and how did you incorporate audience participation? How was the whole performance unified?
André: The Keynote slideshow is Apple’s version of Powerpoint. We added in fun colors for each slide. We made the words move and do funny things on the screen. I took over as host of the ZOOM and shared my screen. When it was time for a song, we muted everyone, except for the musicians who sang and performed the songs. We pasted all the lyrics for each song in the chat.
We had one moment when we asked everyone at Meeting to speak as the heavenly choir of Angels. They were asked to all unmute and say: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
It was perfectly cacophonic.
Do you have any ‘lessons learned’ to share with others?
André: There are going to be mistakes made. It’s Zoom. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the Xmas Spirit. Carla, Kelley, and I were also very patient with each other. When I goofed Carla and Kelly told me gently and helped me along. I hope I did the same for them.
If another Meeting wished to try a similar project, what would they need?
What was the most fun about the project? Do you plan to do it again next year?
Kelley: We are hoping to continue to build on the experience of working with online drama/theater with our First Day School class in 2021. The project inspired one of our Meeting members who lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to join us as a First Day School teacher!
Carla: The best thing about it for me was seeing our First Day School students again. It made me realize how much I enjoy teaching First Day School. Next year I hope our pageant can be live-in-person again.
André: The most fun part for me was working with everyone. It felt so good. I am still smiling now as I remember the prep and the performance.
To reach members of Germantown’s pageant committee contact:
- Carla Cozzens: firstname.lastname@example.org
- André Robert Lee: email@example.com
- Kelley White: firstname.lastname@example.org
To Reach PYM or learn more about youth programs
Contact: Melinda Wenner Bradley, Youth Religious Life Coordinator at email@example.com