Feed on

I was a little heathen child during the 1980s, arguably a fairly conservative decade, in western Nebraska, arguably a very conservative part of the country. I’m also from the tail end of the generations who experienced overt Christianity in the public schools.

I realized pretty early on, after a fairly disastrous stint in Summer Vacation Bible School with a playmate, that I was not cut out for Christianity. Up until about age 10, I was merely ambivalent about religion. I felt like it was disrespectful or inappropriate for me to “play along.” As I got older, especially I’d say from about the fifth grade on, I became less ambivalent and more antagonistic toward enforced religious participation. I knew this whole Christmas Pageant shtick wasn’t for me and I bristled at being forced to participate in wholly cheesy activities glorifying a belief system in which I didn’t believe.

Like most kids, when I didn’t feel like co-operating, I could and would be extravagantly obstreperous. My favorite tactic for a while was corrupting the carols, either by using established variants (Deck the Halls With Gasoline, Jingle Bells, Batman Smells) or making up my own (Angels We Have Heard While High, Oh Come To Old Faithful).

The annual Christmas play at school was always a mixed bag. On one hand, there was the excitement of turning the school room into seating for the play, decorating the stage, and having carte blanche to show off. On the other hand, there was that great white elephant of the religion thing. Plus, as we kids got older, it became less and less appealing to play along with the cheezier aspects of the all-ages performance (our school was a 1-room rural school accommodating children from kindergarten through eighth grade).

School play
The entire student body of Cottonwood Creek, District #70, circa 1984, somehow portraying the story of the birth of Christ via cutout pictures of camels and farm animals.

In my fourth grade year, I got stuck with a recitation of a dreadful poem which surely dated back to the 1920s and featured the opening lines, “I’m going down to my Aunt Kate’s/’Way down in Pokum Holler/That’s why I’m all togged up like this/white shirt and stiff old collar.” It had been intended to be performed by a boy, and I expect that all generations of children who’d been obligated to recite that rotten piece of doggerel approached it with the same degree of reluctance with which I approached it. The premise of the poem was that the little boy (or in my case girl) speaking the piece was less than ecstatic about an impending family holiday visit, until he(she) started thinking about all the good eats in store at Aunt Kate’s house in Pokum Holler. There was absolutely nothing about the piece that inspired any enthusiasm in me whatsoever, not mention of plum pudding, which I doubt many American children of my generation had ever tasted, nor the woes of a “stiff old collar” considering that I made my recitation while wearing a fuzzy red acrylic sweater with a snowflake motif.

The night of the program, I realized that there was no way on earth that I was going to go out there and recite that load of dreck in front of the entire neighborhood, so I feigned stage fright and opted out of the vast majority of the program.

In future years, I was much more canny. The next year, in fact, we undertook our most elaborate production in all of the years I attended Cottonwood when we put on “Christmas on Angel Street,” which was a treacly mess involving a couple of poor (orphan?) kids. The older brother sets out to buy a costly music box for his sister, who longed for it. (this is all based on recollection – I can’t seem to find a legitimate reference for this play online) In any event, it was Not My Kind Of Thing, and I found a way out of it. I volunteered for the most minor part available (that of the shopkeeper) and threw myself wholeheartedly into set construction, getting props lined up, prompting forgetful little kids, and other minor back-of-the-house concerns. That way I looked like a team player with a good attitude, but I didn’t actually have to be on stage, all holy-ing it up.

The following year, I took another no-dialogue part as a mischievous and mobile Christmas tree that refused to be decorated in a slapstick one-act farce centered around a family trying to decorate said PolterBaum.

So I found my way to have fun (or at least escape the largest portion of awkwardness) with the holiday plays, but there was still the nagging issue of the carols. In 8th grade, I simply stopped singing altogether. I’d stand up there like a frizzy-haired totem pole and not move a muscle. I honestly don’t know how or why I got away with acting the way I acted, and in retrospect I am kind of ashamed. I mean, I still don’t enjoy getting holly-jollied to death from mid-November through late-December, but I am proud to say that I’ve developed a greater stock of social grace, so that now, when people say “Merry Christmas,” I can at least smile convincingly and pass it right back to them.

Why shit all over somebody else’s good time just because I don’t agree with it? So long as they don’t fire up the All Xmas All The Time radio at work, I’m pretty willing to live and let live.

Though I’m still inclined to sing:

We three kings of Orient are
Tried to smoke a rubber cigar
It was loaded
It exploded
Scattering them oh so far!

One Response to “Oh, come to Old Faithful!”

  1. Juli says:

    I thought it was ‘floating on a rubber cigar’ at least that’s how I heard it in Iowa. I also played an xmas tree one year – 2nd grade I think.

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