The A/C kicked on, cooling Grandma’s unusually quiet house on this warm late summer afternoon. Where all our parents had gone, none of us were really sure. We had everything we needed — soda, pickles, cable TV. Grandpa V was in his chair in the formal living room reading his usual murder mystery books.
I went into the kitchen to grab a soda; Grandma’s was the only place I actually drank soda. Vickie and Rosamber sat at the table writing on a scratch sheet of paper.
“We’re writing a play!” Vickie said.
“A play? What about?” I, being a much more mature twelve-year-old to their childish nine years of life, did not have much faith in this “play” nor did I really think anything would come of it, but one can only watch so much Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network in one Saturday afternoon. Smartphones had not made their appearance in our lives yet.
“So, we’ll all be acting in it,” Rosamber said with enthusiasm. “We’ll be the stars,” she gestured to the three of us at the table, “and we’ll all be married to guys named Chuck, Chaz, and Charlie.” The two of them started to laugh uncontrollably. I didn’t want to make them feel bad so I let out a low chuckle and a smile.
“Get it? They all have the same name!” Rosamber began laughing again. I tried, half-heartedly, to laugh again.
“If you don’t think it’s funny, don’t laugh.” Vickie said with a scowl.
It wasn’t funny and the rest of the play didn’t sound feasible, but a play for our family at Christmas sounded like a good idea. It had been a few years since we put on a production for the family. Now was the time.
The thing is my family always did these little musical numbers or plays for each other when we hung out at my grandparents’ house when I was young. My aunts would choreograph lip-sync numbers for my sisters, my cousins, Allie and Rosamber, and me. But it had been a while since we had done anything like that. This was my chance to bring that kind of family entertainment back. I had to help them make this play better if I wanted this to be the family performance to bring back family performances.
But being a twelve-year-old and a chronic procrastinator, the fire and excitement of bringing back family-gathering plays was all but forgotten by that Monday. The idea and the play lay dormant in not only my mind but Vickie and Rosamber’s minds as well.
By Thanksgiving, I had pretty much forgotten about the play idea until my sister, Vickie, brought it up.
“What if we do a Nativity play at Christmas instead of the play Rosamber talked about?” I suggested to Vickie.
“But Rosamber was really excited about doing her play at Christmas.” Vickie could be a sweetheart, at times.
“Well she hasn’t been rehearsing it or anything right?”
“I guess not, but I don’t want her to feel bad. She was really excited about it.” Although they often fought, Vickie always looked out for her sister-cousin*, Rosamber.
*Sister-Cousin: A term used by the Villarreal Family to delineate the cousin you are closest to in age, who also happens to be your friend. Example: My sister-cousin and I always get the same gifts at Christmas.
“Well, if she talks about it today then we won’t say anything but if she doesn’t, we can do the Nativity play instead.”
Rosamber didn’t mention the play; she had probably forgotten by then that she had suggested it. Which meant Black Friday was my day to begin planning my masterpiece.
For the next two weeks I plotted and planned. I’d pulled my Precious Moments Bible I had gotten for my 10th birthday off the bookshelf to find the Nativity story only to discover that just two gospels contained the story. Of those two, Matthew’s was boring and Luke’s — while more like all those Rankin/Bass Christmas specials and Christmas songs portrayed — was too wordy. I’d have to re-write it.
After trying for a long hard hour, I remembered I had a little golden book version of the Nativity story. I ran from my room into my sister’s bedroom to the bookshelf filled with my childhood books. It took me all of five minutes to find the book. I thumbed through it quickly.
“This will work, this will be great, I just need someone to be the narrator and we can pantomime it, like ballet,” I thought to myself. I checked writing the play off the list. I could now focus on the actual production, but, again, I was a twelve-year-old chronic procrastinator, so I decided to celebrate finishing the writing of the play first with some TV and snacks.
Every few days I’d think about the play. Thoughts of the play usually invaded my mind while I was studying History or Science. I’d daydream about grand sets in the style of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, complete with camels and elephants carrying in the wise men draped in deep purple, teal, and crimson silks and velvets. I’d see Mary — played by my sister Vickie, of course — wrapped in the soft glow of a backlight, a twinkle in her eye, as she looked down to the precious baby Jesus, played by the newest cast member of the Villarreal cousins, my cousin Allie’s new baby brother.
My Aunts and Uncles, older cousins, and even our hardest critic, Grandpa V, would all stand and cheer as we’d take our bow after the three wise men would kneel to pay homage to the sweet babe in the epic manger in my grandmother’s living room. We’d sing a song to close, evoking the nostalgia of a Peanuts’ TV Special.
I’d sit on my bed, avoiding my homework about General Washington teaching his hick militia to dig catholes, and daydream about how this play would live forever in the collective memory of my family. A legend of artistic genius that would be retold and talked about at every Thanksgiving and Christmas going forward, told with a smile and a tear. I was certain I’d make it the most amazing Christmas pageant ever performed, at least ever performed in my grandmother’s living room.
Although I dreamed of grandiose sets and costumes, I was also a practical twelve-year-old. I knew Christmas was fast approaching and I had to make do with what I had. Sheets, some robes, and my sisters and cousins. But our heart would shine through and the work we put in would make our meager manger shine like a crew of underpaid, overworked, 1920’s Hollywood carpenters had built and painted it. I was banking on their imagination and buy-in to my vision. First, I needed the commitment of my cousins; I wasn’t too worried. They all loved the spotlight. This wasn’t our first rodeo.
December 10th, 2000
My youngest sister Rebecca’s 5th birthday came with a party, and all of my cousins would be there, which made it the perfect family gathering to cast them.
“So I want to do a Nativity play on Christmas Eve at Grandma’s, and we all need to act in it. What do you say?” I asked my cousins Allie and Rosamber.
“Yeah! That would be fun!” My cousin Allie was on board.
“And Christopher can be baby Jesus!”
“I’ll ask my mom,” Allie said.
“And Daniel will be Joseph.” I said.
“Rosamber, you can be the Angel Gabriel, you’ll have the only speaking part.” I was hoping that giving her the most important part, and the only one with lines, would keep her from getting mad that we weren’t doing her play or that Vickie had already been cast as Mary.
The truth is I wanted to be Mary, but a) I needed my sister to be fully invested in this, b) I had to direct the play, and, most importantly, c) if I had cast myself as Mary it would look like I was a stage hog and a diva — which I was — but I needed to convince everyone, including myself, that I was really a sweet person.
We needed this play. At least, my sisters and I did. My other grandpa, Grandpa Aguirre, had passed away that May and I needed something to keep my mind off the fact that this was the first Christmas I’d spend without him. I didn’t know it at the time, but focusing on this play kept me from thinking about his death, the first death of a loved one I had ever experienced.
Rosamber agreed she liked that she got to talk in the play. Again, to avoid playing favorites, I cast myself and my sister-cousin Allie as shepherds and wise men. My little sister was also a shepherd and a wise man, but that was because she was young and would follow me.
The final cast member was needed — the Narrator. I asked my mother for advice and she suggested my Aunt Sandra. My Aunt Sandra had been a teacher for many year and had even written a few children’s stories. She was the perfect choice!
Once my cast was finalized I had to figure out the props, the costumes, and the set. Christmas Eve was fast approaching. I needed to focus, but really who can focus when there are all sorts of Christmas specials on TV and gift shopping and wrapping and decorating.
Practicality and ease won out in the end and I decided that everyone should bring their own sheets and robes as costumes, with the exception of some crowns and angel wings and halo made of garland, which I provided. I spent the next three weeks making the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Christmas Eve 2000
Christmas Eve morning I woke up with excitement. Although we never practiced, I had faith my sisters and cousins would pull it off. After all, we’d done impromptu family performances before without a hitch. I had everything I needed for the play — the sheets, the books, and gifts of the three wise men — stacked on our loveseat ready to go that night. I still had plenty to do for the rest of our Christmas celebrations. We needed to be at Grandma’s house by 7 P.M. so I quickly helped my mom get ready.
When evening finally came we packed our car and rushed to my grandparent’s house. My heart was alight with excitement and cheer. Once at the house, we unloaded the presents and grabbed our dinner of tamales, rice, beans, and nachos. Only half my family had arrived by that point which meant we still had time before we’d perform. I had absolutely no nerves, only excitement as I ate my tamales in the living room by glow of my grandmother’s large Christmas tree.
My family slowly started to show up. I hurried to my grandparents’ room to get the bag I had packed of our props and costumes. The whole family knew the place to store your coats, purses, diaper bags, and anything that wasn’t gifts or food was my grandma’s bed. I switched the light on. I could hear the smooth sound of Bing Crosby’s voice from the other room. The bed was full from headboard to foot, edge to edge. I scanned the bed for our coats. My heart was pounding. I found them behind a diaper bag. I looked through the group of coats and totes that belonged to my mom but couldn’t find the stuff for my play. My heart stopped.
Everything around me got fuzzy. Bing Crosby’s “Jingle Bells” — playing in the other room — sounded like he was singing under water. I knew I had put everything together this morning. I rushed out of my grandmother’s room to my mother, who sat talking with the other adults in the living room.
“Mom, did you get the bag of stuff for my play?”
“I don’t know. What did it look like?” My mother could tell I was starting to freak out. Her dark eyebrows drew together intensifying her look.
“It was in a big Mervin’s bag on the loveseat.” My voice was getting shriller. I could feel myself starting to hyperventilate.
“I don’t think I grabbed that.”
“We have to go home to get it. Let’s go now.” I started pacing, urging my mother hurry. I had to do this play I had to perform it before we opened presents and before people got too tired to pay attention. I knew I had only a small window of time. It was almost 9 P.M. already. I couldn’t do this later, it was a Christmas play for goodness sake! And by next year, Christopher would be too old. It was now or never.
Luckily, we lived less than 10 minutes from my grandparent’s house. A quick drive in the car and we were home. I rushed in and grabbed the bag. My mother locked the front door and we were back in the car. By the time we reached the corner of Tompson Place and Cupples Road, my panic had transformed into excitement again. It was happening, my masterpiece would be performed as soon as we got back to Grandma’s.
As we drove up to my grandma’s street we noticed the flashing lights of an ambulance parked across the street from my grandma’s house. My heart sunk; suddenly the play didn’t matter so much anymore. I had flashbacks to May when they took Grandpa Aguirre from his house; the last time he would be in the house he built. We rushed in and saw two EMTs examining my baby sister, who was sitting on my father’s lap.
“She cranked her neck when we were doing cartwheels,” my cousin Daniel told me.
“That’s it,” I thought, “she’s paralyzed. Also what does cranking one’s neck mean?” I was too afraid to actually go into the living room so I watched from the dining table in the kitchen.
They finished examining her and gave her a clean bill of health. She had simply gotten a cramp. They gave her a cookie and she quickly cheered up. My mind went straight back to the play. I walked into the living room where Becca sat on the sofa eating her cookie. The glow of the Christmas tree made her tears sparkle. My heart ached for her. She looked so little and scared. Her little shoulders shook every now and then with some leftover whimpers.
“Hey Becca, what happened?” I opened with concern.
“I did a cartwheel and fell and cranked my neck.” She said between bites of her cookie.
“I’m sorry, but you’re okay now, right? Do you think you can still be in the play?”
She nodded. I gave her a hug, and she made a little sound of pain then I got up to quickly get everything ready. I wanted to set it up in the living room, but Becca had just had a dramatic fall and the tree was overflowing with Christmas presents. I guessed the den would be a better option. I told my Aunt Sandra and she agreed.
Vickie and Allie grabbed two chairs from the kitchen and quickly constructed our stable. Rosamber was getting into costume in my grandmother’s room while I rounded up the younger kids to get them into costume. After Vickie and Allie finished, they went into my grandma’s room to get ready. I told my family we were about to begin and asked my Aunt Laura to put our baby cousin in the makeshift manger. It was finally happening! My play, my work would finally come to fruition. I practically skipped into my grandmother’s room to get ready.
As I entered the room, I heard sobs. “Oh no, Becca’s hurting again,” I thought to myself. Nope. Now Rosamber was crying. A mix of frustration and despair rushed up from the pit of my stomach to the top of my head. Why was this happening? My face felt hot and my chest felt hollow. But I was determined to fix this problem too.
“What’s wrong?” I put my hand on her shoulder and used my most grown-up voice possible.
“I’m not a boy! Why did you make me a boy?” Rosamber sobbed.
“I told her that Gabriel is a boy angel.” Vickie said as she continued to get dressed as Mary, the only female part in the entire play.
I sighed heavily. Why would Vickie do that now? After all the concern she had about hurting her feelings. I didn’t have time for this.
I stood in front of Rosamber and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Rosamber, I cast you as Gabriel because he’s the only one that has any lines, it’s the best part.”
“But I don’t want to be a boy.” She started to cry louder, by now her mom and my grandma had come into the room.
“What’s happening, what’s wrong?” My grandma asked. Luckily my Aunt Sandra had been back there the whole time and she handled the adults’ questions.
I suddenly remembered something I learned in religion class: angels were sexless.
“Technically, Rosamber, angels aren’t boys or girls.”
“What?” I could tell that wasn’t helping.
“I mean they don’t know for sure if Gabriel was a girl or a boy. So today, in this play, the angel Gabriel is a girl because you’re a girl.” I smiled and hoped I was convincing.
“Really?” she asked as she wiped away her tears.
“Really.” I said, again in the most grown up voice I could muster. Her sobs began to subside. I exhaled and got dressed. The show would go on. I said the tiniest prayer that nothing else would happen.
I took a deep breath, peaked my head out the door into the den to take a look at our audience. Our audience was ready and waiting. I was ready. I took a deep breath to soak it all in and returned to my grandma’s bedroom.
I told my Aunt Sandra where to stand to read the book, I sent Vickie and Rosamber out when it was their cue and the play began. I directed from the back, sending Daniel out when it was time for Joseph and Mary to find no room at the in. The audience watched with captivation, I noticed my Grandpa V watching from behind one of the arm chairs. My mother videotaped the performance. While I still had a racing heart as we were only midway through our play, I also felt a warm glow of pride swell in my chest. My turn to grace the stage of my grandparent’s den rug quickly approached. It was my favorite place to be; in front of a captive audience.
Allie, Becca, and I went out as shepherds to listen to the message of the angels. We walked the long journey from the hills outside of Bethlehem to the humble manger where the blessed child lay. After our quick change, we went out as the wise men. Draped in sheets made for kings, we made our majestic entrance from the other side of the den. I felt like a king walking into the den. We paid homage to baby Christopher; I am only now realizing the connection in name. After which we sang the chorus of “Hark the Herald Angels” and took our bow to thunderous applause. Okay, it wasn’t thunderous, but in that moment I wasn’t in my grandma’s den surrounded by family. In that moment I was standing on the stage of a packed theater. In that moment I was engulfed by the bright stage lights. In that moment I was the happiest I had been in a long time, in almost a year. I was as happy as I was last year when my Grandpa Aguirre was still healthy, still able to hug me and talk to be with his booming voice.
Christmas 2000: The Villarreal cousins (from left to right) Rosamber, Vickie, Christopher, Allie, Daniel, Becca, Sarah Grace | Photo courtesy of the author