A View from the Pew: Pancho and the Christmas Play

If you’ve ever performed in a Christmas drama you know the truth of the old show business maxim attributed to W.C. Fields: “Never work with children or animals.”

I was a member of Highland Hills Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia, from 1992 until 2003 when we moved to the Atlanta suburbs. During my time at Highland Hills, my participation in the annual Christmas drama rose to new heights—literally. Each year I reprised my role as a wiseman, gluing on a fake beard and donning the red satin gown and gold lamé turban that added another foot to my already towering 6 feet, 4 inches.

Other than frightening small children and modeling headgear that resembled a fully popped aluminum foil Jiffy-Pop container, my role wasn’t significant. The star of the show each year wasn’t Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper, or even the baby Jesus. The actor who deserved top billing and whose performance generated the most buzz every year was Pancho the donkey.

Highland Hills had the most beautiful grounds of any church I’ve ever seen, tucked away in Macon’s Shirley Hills neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and home to a bird sanctuary. The campus featured an outdoor garden amphitheater, which proved to be the ideal setting for sunrise services, weddings, and live Nativity dramas.

The outdoor setting allowed Highland Hills to spare no expense when it came to its annual production. While the human actors were not even paid Hollywood scale, the church’s relationship with a Jones County farmer provided access to high dollar, classically trained farm animals.

Okay, well, they probably weren’t classically trained. No animals were harmed in the production, but the sheep did have to be tethered to stakes in the ground to keep the rambunctious teenaged shepherds from scaring them off during their big angelic visitation scene.

The sheep were just window dressing, though, compared to Pancho. I distinctly remember talking with our minister of music, Cass DuCharme, about the challenges of transporting, feeding, and, er… cleaning up after Pancho.

“They don’t teach you this in seminary,” was Cass’s response.

But it was all worth it for Pancho’s big moment in the play. His key dramatic scene wasn’t what you may be thinking. It wasn’t carrying Mary, who was “great with child” into Bethlehem. It wasn’t even Joseph tying him outside the stable adjacent to the inn so that Mary could give birth without an animal present. In fact, it wasn’t a scene at all. Pancho’s much-anticipated annual contribution came in the transition between the angel’s visits to Mary and then Joseph to the glorious sing-along in the sky for the shepherds.

During every performance, as the angel navigated the path behind the set in the dark, Pancho would catch sight of the strange heavenly being and shatter the silent night with an unholy braying, infusing unintended humor in the otherwise reverent event. No matter what Cass did to prevent it, Pancho never missed his cue, and always delivered a crowd-pleasing moment. After a few years, even Cass came to embrace Pancho’s vocal performance as a part of the story.

It’s been at least 18 years since I wore the golden Jiffy pop hat and fake beard, but I still miss Pancho’s contribution to the Nativity. Reflecting on it now, I see how fitting it was. Christmas is not all angel choirs. Sometimes Christmas is a frightened donkey braying in the dark.

The arrival of the Christ child defied expectations. It didn’t follow social customs or class rules. It was earthy, common, and accessible.

In a year when nothing is going according to script, I need a Pancho in my Christmas to let out a frightened “hee-haw” and remind me it’s okay to be afraid. I need a Pancho to spark a laugh. I need a Pancho to punctuate my Christmas observances with a dose of grounded reality.

As you celebrate Christmas 2020—safely, by all means—may you have a Pancho in your life to teach you about the arrival of the Christ child.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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