It was a half-century ago that members of the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City launched what has become a local tradition — the Living Nativity Pageant — drawing visitors from all over Texas and beyond.
The original Living Nativity was a simple display with living characters in Biblical costume, posed around the manger between the sanctuary and parsonage. Cars driving by would pause to see the scene, sometimes creating a rare traffic jam on LBJ in front of the church.
“Sometimes we cheated,” admitted Jim Odiorne, one of the original players.
“Rather than hold our positions all night, we’d station a spotter on the sidewalk, and when a car came he’d alert us, then we’d all get into place until they were gone and we could relax again.”
That simple drive-by glimpse of the original Christmas scene now has grown into a major part of Blanco County’s holiday celebration. An expanded cast includes not only the Holy Family, but angels, shepherds, the three kings, and innkeeper. There also are supporting “players,” such as sheep, who keep the scene realistic.
In addition to the local families who go back every year, the free show draws people from farther away, too.
“I was amazed the first Christmas I was here,” said FUMC Pastor Sid Spiller, “and met people coming from Houston and Dallas, even out of state.
And in many cases, they said they had been coming for years, making it a part of their families’ Christmas tradition!”
It’s a tradition for the players, too. A few years ago, they had their first third-generation player in the cast as the new-born baby Jesus, with mom and dad as Joseph and Mary, and grand-dad as one of the three wise men.
Between the out-of-towners and the players’ own neighbors, the four nights of performances draw well over a thousand people every year. Even a cold, wet holiday like last year makes only a small dent in the crowds in the bleachers.
Besides, the free cookies, coffee and hot chocolate served inside warms the nippiest night.
In addition to being the official “golden anniversary” of the pageant’s beginning, the final night of performances will honor Ruth Blair, the former longtime church secretary, who was a major force behind raising the Living Nativity to a higher level of professionalism with music and lights and an insistence on a quality performance from everyone.
“I had done Christmas pageants all over the country as we moved around,” Blair said, “but when we landed in Johnson City and found this already in place, I was ecstatic. I could see that with just a little polish, we could have a really outstanding product.”
Blair learned early that she needed to have confidence in the church members to come through for her when the lights went up, no matter how loose things might look beforehand.
“Nobody would sign up in advance and commit to roles or supporting jobs. We’d get to opening night and I wouldn’t know who all my performers were going to be,” she explained.
“But just before showtime, they’d all show up and get into costume and do the chores they needed to do, and when the lights clicked on, it was all there and smooth as could be.”
“It had to be smooth,” recalled a longtime cast member. “Ruth cracked a mean whip.”
For this 50th season, Blair will return to Johnson City from her retirement near Dallas to be honored the evening of the 11th as the “guiding star” of the pageant.
The free show will be performed five times a night — at 6:30, 7, 7:30, 8 and 8:30 — Friday and Saturday nights the first two weekends in December — the 3rd, 4th, 10th and 11th. There’s no charge; admission and refreshments are always free.
So is 2010 really the 50th anniversary of the show? Umm... probably. More or less.
In truth, no one expected it to blossom into the big deal it has become, so nobody kept records back then. The old veterans agreed that if it isn’t actually year number 50, it’s close.
“Of course, nobody knew what Christianity was going to become, either, back when the original manger scene was played,” Spiller noted.