Centurions of Christmas

December 14, 2017 by Terry Fallis

– Illustration by Malcolm Jones –

There’s a photo
that hangs in our church taken in the early 1940s. It’s a big church in Toronto—it seats about 800 or so—with one of the largest United Church congregations in Canada. The photo was taken from up in the east side gallery looking down on the main sanctuary. Every pew below is packed to the gunnels with Canadian servicemen in uniform. It was a special service for them on the eve of their departure for the war in Europe.

I look at that framed photo whenever I am in the church and it never fails to move me. I’ve attended that church for more than 50 years (I was in kindergarten when I started) and have still not been thrown out.

Other than in that photo, the only other times I’ve ever seen the church filled to capacity is every Dec. 24 at 3 and 5 p.m. for the annual Christmas pageant, a spectacle of unsurpassed…um…pageantry.

For the past 28 years, our church has put on a rather unusual Christmas pageant. By unusual, I don’t mean that we’ve added new characters or changed the ending of the greatest story ever told. Rather, it’s unusual because ours features live animals and a cast of more than 100 of our congregation who bring more in enthusiasm than in acting prowess.

Yes, you read that right, live animals. I don’t just mean that some of the cast bring their dogs and cats to add some colour to the performance. We actually have several goats and sheep in the chancel that have an unerring knack for loudly bleating and baaing at the most dramatic moments in the show—like when the Angel Gabriel, high in the gallery, is imparting his divine message to an anxious Mary.

There’s also a braying donkey that carries Mary up the aisle in search of a room for the night—to clarify, it’s Mary who is in search of the room for the night, not the donkey. Finally, the highlight of the show—other than the birth of you-know-who—there’s Skyhigh the camel. Yes, a very large camel traipses up and down the centre aisle at two different points in the show.

You might think Skyhigh is his name because he’s so tall. You’re partly right. But I’m convinced the “high” part of his name refers to his astonishingly pungent aroma. I have first-hand knowledge of this assault on the nasal passages. You see, for every performance of the Christmas pageant over the past 28 years, my identical twin brother, Tim, and I have loyally served as the chief centurions. And escorting the camel is apparently far too onerous a responsibility for the lesser centurions and lowly legionnaires. It must fall to the chief centurions. If I win the coin toss, I march in front of the camel and my brother brings up the rear. I don’t usually win the coin toss, hence my deep knowledge of “essence de camel.”

Being the chief centurions is almost certainly the closest we’ll ever come to serving in the military—and that’s a good thing. I have little doubt that my brother and I are both not cut out for it. I suspect we would push back the frontiers of military ineptitude. If I have not made myself clear, Canada’s best interests would not be served by our enlistment. In fact, if Canada had any enemies, the government may wish to have my brother and me go undercover and attempt to enlist in their armies. But each Dec. 24, we do our duty and lead a ragtag regiment of centurions and legionnaires ranging in age from six to 75.

As we march up the aisle in ragged formation, we shout a very topical military chant that we have written, sometimes moments before showtime. There were many references to Donald Trump in this year’s chant. Let’s just say we’re supposed to be the comic relief in the performance. And sometimes we actually are.

Matching our longevity in the cast is our senior minister. Every year, he fervently reprises his role as the evil King Herod. Some of our parishioners are a little concerned that he seems so perfectly at home in this megalomaniacal role.

For 28 years, we’ve marked the season with two full-house performances on Christmas Eve. It’s exhausting, fun, and funny. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

All the best of the season to you and may all your Christmas camels be pine-scented.

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