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Americans Celebrate Christmas Anew

December 23, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a hurried prayer for deliverance from the temptations of the mall or in the quieter contemplation of a baby Jesus in a bright red Santa suit, churches across the nation will this weekend give an ancient tradition _ the Christmas pageant _ a modern American spin.

Two Washington churches are staging pageants that meld the ancient message of salvation delivered through Jesus’ birth with a robust, if paradoxical, modern commercialism _ a phenomenon recent scholarship says is profoundly American.

At Foundry United Methodist Church near well-appointed Dupont Circle, parents of three diminutive wise men held their breath as their charges handed pricey gifts to the baby Jesus, a doll wrapped up in a candy cane-emblazoned Santa suit.

``Watch that vase!″ one parent anxiously counseled a caped youngster who swung the earthenware by his hip, schoolbag style, during a rehearsal last week.

Across town at Bethesda Baptist Church, a modern white building soaring above the battered clapboards of Ivy City, kids rehearsed a show extolling the virtues of laptop computers and the Internet as a way of tracking down Christian meaning _ all the while decrying Christmas’ commercialism.

``Should I type while I’m talking?″ 15-year-old Sam Rogers asked the play director, caressing the borrowed laptop.

Mixing the twin American pieties _ sacraments and sales _ is deeply rooted American tradition, and not one that is necessarily hypocritical, says Leigh Schmidt, a Princeton University scholar who leads research into modern American holidaymaking.

In his study, ``Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays,″ Schmidt describes the seeming mix of the sacred and profane as ``a compelling linkage of religious, civic, and folk celebration to modern forms of display and retailing.″

Not every culture tolerates the mix so well. The original ``mystery plays″ _ recountings of biblical tales dating back more than 1,000 years _ died out in northern Europe in the Middle Ages partly because their popularity attracted merchants, and church leaders were aghast at seeing trinkets peddled alongside scripture.

By contrast, what Schmidt describes as ``convergences of fair and festival″ has happily thrived in American at least since the early 19th century.

The Santa Claus myth is an example: His modern form is the creation of Coca-Cola commercial artists. His apotheosis is the 1947 film ``Miracle on 34th Street,″ in which, after all, his overarching triumph is persuading Macy’s to encourage customers to comparison-shop at Gimbel’s.

It’s no surprise, then, that the American ``mystery play″ has become something of a business, with thousands of versions available through catalogues.

At Foundry _ well-known here as the church attended by President Clinton and his family _ director K Williams chose ``Mary Remembers,″ by Carol Christians.

The play stars an aged Mary retelling her life to kids through cinematic flashbacks and describing the coming of a savior in an American vernacular replete with ``amazings″ _ suggesting the oldest Valley Girl in creation. ``I liked it because it affords the opportunity for a lot of children to participate,″ said Williams.

A flyer to parents at the church advises ``wise persons should wear a fancy robe,″ but notes also that ``we have lots of very beautiful halos and wings.″

At Bethesda Baptist, Michele Goady chose ``The S Files,″ by Sue Smith. It’s a musical about a group of kids who forsake mall-ratting for Web-searching _ in this case, an edifying hunt for the meaning of Christmas.

The play features upbeat songs, including a rap number, ``Supernatural.″

In both churches, the kids in the pageants acknowledged that sneaking commercialism pervaded the enterprise _ but they didn’t see much wrong with that.

``It gets kids involved, kids who can’t sit through the service,″ said Erin Dall-Silver, a 15-year-old who played Mary at Foundry.

Sam Rogers, who leaves the comfort of his home in suburban Maryland each Sunday to attend services and do volunteer work in the inner-city neighborhood where his father grew up, said his family’s upwardly mobile example was part of the Christmas message.

``I know I’m lucky,″ he said. ``I live in a two-parent family, and I appreciate my father out there working. Family is the message as much as Jesus is the message.″

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