Ghosts of Holiday Programs Past

By Vic Fleming

It’s that time of year again. Time for holiday programs.

Such as the one recounted by John Irving in “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” The one directed annually by Rev. and Mrs. Wiggin. The one that made Owen mad, because the little kids were “disguised as turtledoves.”In costumes “so absurd that no one knew what these children were supposed to be”! They looked like “science-fiction angels, spectacular life-forms from another galaxy, as if the Wiggins had decided that the Holy Nativity had been attended by beings from faraway planets.”

A la “Away in a Manger,” the Wiggins insisted that Baby Jesus not cry. At all. To accomplish this, they had “dozens of babies backstage (and) the Christ Child was whisked from the manger at the first unholy croak or gurgle” and replaced with a substitute.

It also bothered Owen that “whoever played Joseph was always smirking” and that “the prettiest girl” in the class was always chosen to play Mary. “WHAT DOES PRETTY HAVE TO DO WITH IT?,” Owen asks. “WHO SAYS MARY WAS PRETTY?’”

At the age of 32, I played Joseph opposite a pretty girl. With whom I’m celebrating 40 years of marriage this month. We landed our roles because our 4-month-old was asked to play Jesus. Our 3-year-old, dressed as an angel, was to stand with us. A dozen teenaged angels ballet-danced to a carol as we stood there in awe. Mary and I marveled at the tiny angel in the rear – skipping and whirling familiarly as the spirit moved her. We’d been so busy keeping Baby Jesus quiet that we’d let the littlest angel slip away.

Which leads to the experience of Dr. William Muehl, former Yale Divinity professor. He and his wife were at a nursery-school Christmas play, featuring three Virgin Marys and two Josephs. The school had received multiple costumes over time and did not want to waste them.

The Holy Quintet were followed by 20 angels in diaphanous gowns with large gauze wings. Then came 20 shepherds, boys “dressed in burlap sacks and clutching an assortment of saplings which purported to be crooks. At this point an unfortunate discovery came to light.”

To be sure of “a pleasantly-balanced array on stage,” the director, using chalk, had made a circle on the floor for each angel and a cross for each shepherd. She’d told the kids to find and stand on their marks. Unwisely, this had been done when they were wearing shorts, skirts, and blue jeans. “When the angels came on, in their flowing robes, each of them covered not only their own circle, but the adjacent cross as well.

“The shepherds began looking for their places. Angels were treated as they had never been treated before. And at last, one little boy who had suffered through as much of this nonsense as he could handle, turned to where the teacher in charge was quietly going mad, and announced angrily: ‘These damn angels are fouling up the whole show! They’ve hidden all the crosses.’

“Needless to say, his mother and I were deeply embarrassed.”

Happy holidays!

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at