Celebrating the holiday spirit with the help of a few robots, zombies, time travelers and a latter-day Scrooge named Jimmy Grabbage

It is the third Saturday of December 2007, and we’re running behind, as usual. Dress rehearsal begins in less than five hours. The backdrop is a work in progress. Costumes are a mess. Onstage, friends and I perch on ladders spray-painting the backdrop—a night sky—before which actors will soon make entrances. Several minutes into the job, the compressed paint particles activate a buildingwide smoke alarm, which, while not quite as loud as an air-raid klaxon, sounds pretty darn close. We scramble to find a shutoff switch to no avail. In a matter of minutes, a cadre of Columbus firefighters in full turnout gear arrives on the scene. By the time they depart, dress rehearsal is less than four hours away.

Welcome to the annual Christmas Play, First Congregational Church-style.

For 11 years, from 2003 through 2013, I wrote and directed the holiday play at our Downtown church at 444 E. Broad St. The production, staged on a Sunday evening two weeks before Christmas, helps kick off the church’s holiday season offerings. It’s an event for younger children and not to be confused with the church’s Christmas Pageant, a Christmas Eve tradition for more than 60 years involving a re-creation of the Nativity with elaborate outfits and thunderous organ music. The play is cupcakes with smeared frosting compared to the formal banquet of the pageant. In fact, cupcakes are often served at the Christmas Play dinner—but not to the actors. The hazards of sugaring up children five minutes before they take the stage is one of many lessons I learned over the years.

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I began my tenure as Christmas Play director on a whim a year after my wife and I began attending First Church. Our oldest daughter, Sarah, had aged out of the play by that time, but our twins, Emma and Thomas, were 8 years old—still at the theatrical sweet spot. Writing a play seemed a natural extension of the storytelling I did with the children already—I mean, how hard could it be?

To find out, I decided to write an original composition to address the problem that every generation complains about but that really does seem to be getting worse: finding the true meaning of Christmas in an ever more commercialized season. My goal was to create a Yuletide skeptic in the tradition of Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch—complete with the solid consonant crunch of their names—who would see the light by play’s end. In due course I came up with a character I called Jimmy Grabbage. Materialistic, selfish and a tad antisocial, his only pleasure in life is playing his KrazyKid hand-held game console and lusting after the hot, new game, “PowerDestructo III,” featuring “20 percent more car crashes and 30 percent more explosions.” To achieve that, Jimmy must first unlock the Utterly Cool Key to the Universe on the last level of his current game. Everything’s fine until a skateboarding accident knocks Jimmy unconscious, and he wakes in a dream landscape filled with shepherds and kings and a bright star overhead and … you get the idea. Exposed to the faith of people living far simpler lives than he, Jimmy realizes there’s more to life than video games. In an act of pure sacrifice, he volunteers his KrazyKid as a makeshift cradle to protect the baby Jesus from the muddy stable floor. Back home, à la Scrooge and the Grinch, he’s a changed boy. Or girl, in this case, since in true Christmas Play casting fashion, he was played by the best actor available that year, who gamely tucked her hair into a ball cap and stole the show.

By now, some of you may be wondering why lightning didn’t strike me during the creation of this less-than-traditional drama. Frankly, I wondered that too. But I survived unscathed and a tradition was underway. The plays that followed had no less unorthodox themes, to wit: “Lights, Camera, Christmas!”; “Bloodhound Butch and the Case of the Missing Christmas Spirit” (subtitle: “With Fruitcake, All Things Are Possible”); “A Superheroes Christmas Tale”; and the 2007 opus that triggered the fire alarms: “Star Chores: An Interplanetary Christmas Tale, or What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”

I guess we found out.

Over the years I populated the plays with cowboys and cowgirls, robots, zombies, movie producers and time travelers, among many other not-exactly-in-keeping-with-the-season characters. I included references to Ohio State football and usually got a dig in at the Blue Jackets in the days before they ruined everything by getting good and going to the playoffs. Though my plays had contemporary references, I stuck with a strict rule of no pop culture rip-offs, declining requests, for example, for “An American Idol Christmas Play!” First Church has a long history of supporting the arts, and in my own off-kilter way I wanted to honor that.

I soon learned that “writing” the plays also meant overseeing a complicated few weeks of running rehearsals—with volunteer parents by my side—arranging costumes and figuring out scenery. Yes, in the first couple of years I gave the twins some of the top roles—guilty as charged—but eventually they aged out too. Yet somehow I just kept at it.

The most famous seasonal pageant may be the one featuring the round-headed kid with a funny-looking beagle, the holiday classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” One of the best versions involves the atrocious Herdman children in Barbara Johnson’s 1971 classic novel, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” And while it’s not strictly a Nativity story, Radio City Music Hall’s annual “Christmas Spectacular” is a seasonal favorite replete with camels, sheep and donkeys. Live animals, elaborate costumes and cheek mics are pro forma for productions around town and across the nation, and more power to them. But at First Church, we decided that high-tech costuming meant having an adequate supply of safety pins and duct tape; amplification meant praying the wobbly front-of-the-stage microphones wouldn’t fall over as the curtains parted; and cardboard cutouts would do just fine for scenery.

My first plays were a tad chaotic as I tried to establish a system allowing me to keep my sanity and streamline the annual rehearsal schedule, but eventually a workable template emerged. The lead characters always doubted the existence of Christmas Spirit as the plays chronicled their journey to belief. Skeptics always encountered shepherds and kings—or queens, depending on the talent pool that year. A young child always played the Christmas Star. At some point the cast always trouped through the audience, searching for Christmas Spirit. Kindergarteners through first-graders, introduced as the “Mistletoe Marchers,” kicked things off with carols, while second-graders had their own special role announcing the theme of the play. The last scene always featured the cast reciting the Nativity story according to the Gospel of Luke: “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field …”

Oh, and most importantly? No cuts. You want to participate? We’ll find a role for you.

I developed such a routine that I even wrote a short how-to primer. Some of the chapter headings included:

Conception, or “How to Stare at a Blank Computer Screen in Three Easy Steps” Assigning Roles, or “Good Casting Cop, Bad Casting Cop” Rehearsals, or “Sorry, Johnny Can’t Make It Sunday, Again” Costumes, or “No, Sneakers Aren’t Sandals” The Big Night, or “Prayer, Prompting and Candy Canes”

Of course, none of those prepared me for the ultimate directing challenge: the day-before call from a parent one year informing me that her daughter, one of the leads, had the flu and wouldn’t be able to participate. Solution? Spread the lines around and pray for a miracle. Christmas play, after all.

By 2013—“A Merry Christmas Time … Machine”—I was ready to hang up my director’s stocking cap. I was now writing mystery novels in my spare time and no longer had the extra hours to dedicate to the plays, as much as I enjoyed them. But to my amazement, and gratitude, the dramas live on, recycled each year with new kids, revised lines and updated jokes.

Looking back, the plays were a community-building exercise that brought a lot of people together for some fun each December. They also gave me a creative outlet for religious expression, which is ironic given that I’m, well, agnostic. Or rather, consider me a devout doubter. Those people who say, “I believe in God, I’m just not into organized religion”? I’m the exact opposite: up in the air about a greater power, but thankful for the gift of joining people once a week to face the same direction and think about questions bigger than dinner that night. The Christmas plays, as goofy as they were, were an extension of that appreciation. They were a prayer with a punchline, a hymn with a slice of ham. Were the productions a bit over the top? Perhaps. Did they capture the essence of the meaning of Christmas? I like to think they did. With the benefit of hindsight, would I have done anything differently?

Of course I would. Because spray-painting next to smoke alarms is a really bad idea.