Advent, Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas pageants, Liturgical Drama

Rumors of Joy

(This is a 2-person reading I’ve used on Christmas Eve, originally written as a pageant performed by adults to mark the relationship between a local church I served and a ministry to the homeless. We coordinated the pageant with a blanket drive for the people served by the ministry.)

Carol                         “Once in Royal David’s City,” v. 1-2

Lector: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. (Luke 2:1-3)

Storyteller: It was a cold winter’s afternoon, one of those days when you can hardly believe it could be much darker and still be called daytime.

Lector: Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2:4-5)

Storyteller: Joe and Mary arrived in Portland (or a city close to you) by bus. They were hoping to get to Boston (or the biggest nearby city), but this was as far as the money would take them. Back at home, people knew that Mary was going to have a baby. And they knew the baby wasn’t Joe’s. That was a hard one for Joe. Mary told him some story that no guy could believe, no matter how much he wanted to.

It was a crazy story.

Mary said an angel came to talk to her.

Only a crazy person could believe it!

Maybe Joe was a little crazy in love, then, because he stood by Mary.

Maybe. He knew for sure they needed a place to stay that night, and that’s why they didn’t travel to Boston. He figured they could find a room in Portland, and if they really needed it, he had heard there was a good hospital in town.

So they checked out the cheaper motels. But they were all full. Remember, it was Christmas Eve.

Lector: While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)

Carol                         “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” v.1-2

A homeless nativity at Alki United Church of Christ.
A homeless nativity at Alki United Church of Christ.

Storyteller: They were standing outside a motel near the bus station, wondering what to do next, when they heard the wheels of a shopping cart and the jouncing of bottles and cans.

An old lady pushed the cart toward them. She could see that Mary was very, very pregnant, and she offered to help them. She told them about the place where she pitched her tent and offered to let them sleep in it that night.

After all, she said, “It’s Christmas.”

They followed her to a place down by the railroad tracks, where they were surprised to see a lot of people besides themselves seeking shelter on that dark night.

Lector: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)

Storyteller: When they got there, everyone looked a little protective of their stuff. All except one. Her name was Angel.

She had an overstuffed backpack, and as soon as she got a look at Mary, she started taking things out, looking for something important.

At the bottom of the bag, she found it. Someone had come down to the day shelter giving out diapers, and she took them, because you just never know what you might need.

At least that’s what she told Mary.

Lector: Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:9-14)

Carol                         “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

Storyteller: Angel looked around the tent city and started telling her friends about Joe and Mary. She remembered the time she had a baby of her own, and she could tell just by looking that Mary didn’t have long to wait.

Angel knew there were things Mary would need on that cold night besides the diapers.

Lector: When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. (Luke 2:15-16)

Storyteller: Sure enough, the baby was born that night. The people heard his first cry.

From the edge of the crowd, a man came forward. He was one of those guys whose looks made you want to steer clear, a silent giant with a big dog and a grim expression. He rarely talked to anyone.

He came right over to Mary, and Joe looked worried.

But then the man said gruffly, “Here, take my blanket. I’ll huddle up with my dog tonight.”

Then they had a visit from a man who thought they might need a little something else while taking care of the baby. He was one of those guys who always has an opinion about everything, who always has a lot to say on every subject. Kind of a wise guy.

But on this night, he quietly offered them his lantern. “You may want some light,” he said.

Surrounded by new friends, the little family spent their first night together.

Lector: When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. (Luke 2:17-18)

Carol                                                 “The First Noel,” v. 1-3

Storyteller: When he looked at the baby, Joe was glad he had stood by Mary.

Lector: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

Storyteller: Mary said nothing, but her smile told him how joyful her heart felt, even in the dark, cold place where the baby was born.

Lector: The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:20)

Storyteller: You may find it hard to believe, but it’s a true story that they all felt warm that night, even the ones who didn’t have blankets.

It’s a true story that the baby’s face shone even before the lantern cast its light.

You may have heard about it.

People may tell you it was only a rumor. But you should always listen to rumors of joy.

Carol                         “Joy to the World”

***Copyright 2006, Rev. Martha K. Spong (this version 2011)

Christmas pageants, Study Leave

Hail, Sir Donkey, Hail!

Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude;
And the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

“The Friendly Beasts” is what I call an old-fashioned favorite. I’ve known it since I was a little girl, I think because I heard it on a Burl Ives recording. (I hear it in his voice.) The Father of My Children grew up with the Harry Belafonte version. So naturally I wanted my children to know it, and it’s part of our family Christmas lore. A few years ago my friend RevFun and I used it in a joint Christmas Eve service and added a verse about a tri-colored dog, with tri-colored Molly present for the singing. 

During last year’s Christmas pageant at NYCC, I particularly admired a stick-horse donkey with a very handsome head “ridden” by Mary. It occurred to me that we might feature a donkey in this year’s pageant, and that eventually led me to the idea of writing a pageant based on “The Friendly Beasts.” Since writing the pageant is Task 1 of my Study Leave, I spent some time this morning looking for additional verses. The original has donkey, sheep, cow and dove, and as mentioned above I have one for a dog. On the Internet I also found a camel verse. 

My temporary office-mate suggests we might compose parody verses about a cat. Please feel free to offer suggestions in the comments. 

But more seriously, I also read the origin of the carol and wanted to share it with you below. Please read on!

This song originally hails from a 12th century Latin song “Orientis Partibus” which first appeared in France and is usually attributed to Pierre de Corbeil, Bishop of Sens (d 1222) (“Office de la circoncision,” “Lew manuscrit de l’office de la Circoncision de Notre-Dame-du-Puy,” or “L’Office de Pierre de Corbeil,” circa 1210). The Feast of the Circumcision is celebrated on January 1. The song is associated with the Feast of Fools.

The tune is said to have been part of the Fete de l’Ane (The Donkey’s Festival), which celebrated the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and was a regular Christmas observance in Beauvais and Sens, France in the 13th century. During the mass, it was common for a donkey to be led or ridden into the church.

The words and tune were designed to give thanks for the ass on which Mary rode, and began: Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus (‘From the East the ass has come’). Each verse was sung, and finished with the chorus ‘Hail, Sir donkey, hail’. It was a solemn affair, but the tune became very popular in 17th and 18th century Germany.

Orientis partibus
adventavit asinus,
pulcher et fortissimus,
Sarcinis aptissimus.

Hez, Sir Asnes, hez!

Stick with me here. I realize I’m posting in tongues, but an interpretation will come later.

Saltu vincit hinnulos
damas et capreolos
super dromedarios
velox madianeos

Hic in collibus Sychen
iam nutritus sub Ruben
transiit per Jordanem
saliit in Bethlehem

Dum trahit vehicula
multa cum sarcinula
illius mandibula
dura terit pabula

Cum aristis, hordeum
comedit et carduum
triticum ex palea
segregat in area

Amen dicas, asine
Iam satur ex gramine
amen, amen itera
aspernare vetera

An English Translation:

From the East the donkey came,
Stout and strong as twenty men;
Ears like wings and eyes like flame,
Striding into Bethlehem.
Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Faster than the deer he leapt,
With his burden on his back;
Though all other creatures slept,
Still the ass kept on his track.
Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Still he draws his heavy load,
Fed on barley and rough hay;
Pulling on along the road —
Donkey, pull our sins away!
Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Wrap him now in cloth of gold;
All rejoice who see him pass;
Mirth inhabit young and old
On this feast day of the ass.
Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Words by Susan Cooper from Nancy and John Langstaff, Christmas Revels Songbook (Boston: David R. Bodine,1985). Another English translation by Curtis Clark (© 1998) can be found at December Rains

(Seriously, read that one, too. Hilariously solemn.)


The song emigrated to England in the 12th century, where it began to take on its modern character. It is for this reason that some sources will give the origin of this song as England.

Orientis Partibus was harmonized in 4/4 time for Church Hymn Tunes, ancient & modern (1853) by Richard Redhead (1820-1901) and given triple time by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) in English Hymnal (1906).

All this history of the carol comes from the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas. You gotta love it, right?