Advent Stories: What Child Is This?

Amy Green

Warsaw, Indiana, 2002

According to my parents, there are no pictures of this Christmas program (I am not sad about this), but here’s me with my sister a year or so before this story.

Life isn’t fair, let me tell you. I’m not actually allowed to complain—my parents say that’s a “bad attitude”—but it’s my last year in kids’ choir and there was only one part I really, really wanted in our Christmas musical. And guess who got it?

My twin sister Erika, that’s who. She’s a member of the Fifth Grade Detective Brigade. They get to wear all black and sneak around to a cool theme song.

And guess who I have to be?

Chrissy. I call her Chrissy-the-Sissy, because she’s supposed to be all girly and dreamy. We’re performing tonight, and here’s my very first line: “Ooh, I want to be an angel! I just love wearing halos and big, fluffy wings.”

Really. I’m not kidding. Word-for-word, right there.

This is going to be so painful.

I wanted to ask to switch parts with Erika, but my mom said something like “Mr. and Mrs. Cox get to make the decisions, and they have their reasons.” But here are my reasons, for the record:

Why I Should Have Been in The Fifth Grade Detective Brigade

  • I can talk loudly enough that I don’t need a microphone. (Since the FGDB members walk around looking for clues, they don’t have any.)
  • Erika would be a better angel than me. Way better.
  • No offense or anything, but I’d be a better detective than her.
  • Anyway, she wants to wear a fancy dress and I want to wear sunglasses. Everybody would be happier this way.
  • Last year, I wrote a whole journal in code, an Ottendorf Cipher, where you pick a document and use numbers to substitute for letters. My document is a speech by Abraham Lincoln, but I won’t tell you which one, or where I hid the key to the code. Even if you found it, I put the key in another code, and you have to know twenty-four trivia questions about my life to break that one. So I have lots of practice at detective things and could really get into character.

I didn’t give this list to our directors, because I know the only reason I got the part of Chrissy-the-Sissy-Angel is because I’m supposed to sing a solo in the first medley. “What Child Is This?” Just a verse of it before the rest of the choir comes in. That’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and to be honest, I like singing solos. That’s the not the problem. It’s just…well…

Let me explain by going back to last week. Every year, the 5th and 6th grade girls’ Sunday School class makes Christmas cookies with Mrs. K, and we eat way more of them than our moms would let us if they knew. While they baked, we watched this really old movie—like, barely in color and where all the women have big hair—called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

It’s about how six of the most terrible kids in the world, the Herdmans, end up being the main parts in a Christmas musical, and how they make everything better, but accidentally. In case you think that sounds boring, there are also fight scenes and attack cats and fire.

Come to think of it, I’d love to be a Gladys Herdman kind of angel during the performance tonight, if anybody would let me. Yell, “HEY! Unto you a child is born!” instead of singing “What Child Is This?” That would shake things up at Pleasant View Bible Church, huh?

I would probably also get in big trouble.

Anyway, that’s not the point. There’s this part in the movie where Imogene Herdman is studying a picture of Mary and Jesus, trying to copy it. Trying her best to look like something she’s not, and she knows it and everybody knows it too, with her dirty face and tangled hair and loopy earrings.

In the book—I read it after we watched the movie, it’s way better—the kids sang “What Child Is This” while Imogene is holding baby Jesus. The same song that I’m singing as a solo.

Later, Imogene looks at a picture of Mary and says it’s exactly right. And then the book says, “I think it meant that no matter how she herself was, Imogene liked the idea of the Mary in the picture—all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything at all except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.”

That’s the way I feel, sometimes, being Chrissy the angel. Like a fake, who doesn’t look anything like one of those frilly tree-toppers. I didn’t put it on the list, because it seems silly, but I’m just not…the angel type. You know? I’m clumsy and I’ve got thick glasses and short hair that sticks out and I didn’t used to care…but I do a little bit now that I’m older.

Tonight’s the performance. I’m out of time. Soon, everyone’s going to be watching me, and maybe I can sound like an angel, sort of, if I breathe from my diaphragm like I learned in choir class. But I can’t look like one. Some days I think every other girl in my class would be better at that part.

But maybe that’s okay. That’s the whole point of the book and the movie. Imogene didn’t look a thing like the way we picture Mary. Gladys wasn’t exactly the most normal angel of the Lord, either. But there was something real about them, and anyway, what if we’ve been wrong all this time about what they’re supposed to look like? What if Mary wasn’t even pretty? The Bible doesn’t say she was.

Jesus sure wasn’t, because he was a human just like us, and don’t tell anyone I said this, but human babies are ugly when they’re just born no matter how much you lie your head off to their moms and say they’re cute. They’re just red and wrinkly and usually screaming.

I don’t know about the angels, but I’m guessing first off, they mostly looked scary, and also they probably didn’t care how they looked, so I shouldn’t either. People are supposed to think more about the song and what it’s about than me. “This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.” It really is a beautiful song.

I’m gonna do it. I’m going to go out there and stand tall in my pinned-up baptismal robe with my tinsel halo that itches. I’m not going to think about my hair or my lines or which of the older girls would have been better at my part. I’m going to stare into that spotlight and stop trying to look holy or pretty and just sing like I mean it. For the Herdmans…and for Jesus.

And who knows? Maybe I can play a spy when I get into the youth group next year.

(This is the latest in a series of fictionalized narratives based on the true history of beloved Christmas carols…except since this is my last one of 2018, I broke the rules to include a true story about my personal interaction with a Christmas carol.  I have no links to biographical information, except that sixteen years later, I read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever each December…and I still can’t crack the code I wrote that journal in. To read past narratives, go here.)

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