12/16/2010 02:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Point of Christmas Pageants

'Tis the season for Christmas pageants, the boring, the brief, the touching, the sweet, the maudlin, the flawed, the ill-sung, the ill-starred, the much-photographed and the heart-wrenching after all. We can all remember cringing when some poor Joseph forgot his lines or a wise man tripped just as he was bringing the doll in the manger a Reynolds-Wrapped box of frankincense or myrrh.

Some pageant stories have been passed along so they've reached the level of myth, like the one about the innkeeper who looked at a poor bedraggled Mary and a well-traveled Joseph and rewrote scripture by inviting them to stay at his place in Bethlehem instead of that fabled stable drear.

Perhaps it's worth noting that the biblical record is a bit thin on details. I used to give my Sunday School class of precocious fifth and sixth graders a Christmas quiz before we embarked on the annual pageant: How many wise men were there? What were their names? What kind of animals came to the manger? Where was the manger, anyway?

The Bible never says three wise men -- that was just how many gifts they brought, gold and frankincense and myrrh. It doesn't give their names. It never says that sheep and dogs and the ox and the ass and the lamb lay down together at the stable when the shepherds came to call. And anyway, it never says it was a stable. We're guessing on that one (where else would you put a manger?). There isn't even an innkeeper, just an overcrowded inn.

"Okay," I told my kids, "now you're free to create your own Christmas pageant." I've seen some wonderful things over the years: rapping shepherds, cowboy wise men, Valley Girl Marys ("like, Wow"), break-dancing angels, TV-repairmen Josephs and a talk-show-host Herod. And I'm all for it. Anything to bring this wild and wonderful story down to a place where it makes some sort of sense to a kid today or even some sense to a would-be grown-up like me.

If there's one thing I miss from most Christmas pageants it's the darker parts of the story. Everybody likes Christmas more than Easter because you get all these happy things like angels singing and mysterious visitors offering gifts and the child of God lying in a manger. Easier to take than God on a cross. But that means skipping some terrible violent things in the story, like Herod slaughtering all those babies because he was afraid one of them would usurp his throne, or Mary and Joseph dashing off to Egypt with their newborn because their lives were at stake.

The historical Herod was a pretty savvy political operator, as my friend Stacy Schiff makes clear in her new, dazzling biography of Cleopatra. Not only was he this baby's first adversary but he had made life difficult for Cleopatra a couple of decades earlier when she was coming down on the wrong side of Caesar Augustus.

The pageant that sticks in my mind the most had a scary, scenery-chewing Herod, a multi-racial band of angels and more than three wise men and women. But the moment of transport came for me when the Mary, an unprepossessing 13-year-old, as awkward and timid as any teen, started reciting, "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior..." and kept it up for all 10 verses, walking the length of the church, never skipping a beat, and I thought, "Yes, she would have been as young and awkward as that and then transformed."

Because when it comes down to it, the story has what all great stories must have: the characters become changed. The shepherds leave their flock, the wise men follow a star, a young father trusts a dream and a girl becomes the mother of God.

It's enough to take your breath away.