A Holiday Tradition
There’s a little red ceramic angel that holds a place of honor on the living room mantle at the Franklin County home of Gretchen Cooper Walsh.
It has been in Walsh’s protective care since she was a youngster, a present to her from some special women. It was given to her for the time she played the Christ child in the annual Christmas pageant at Christ Episcopal Church.
Some who see it might think it a simple trinket, but to Walsh it is a reminder of the joys, hard work and laughter of being a part of an Ironton institution that brings together a community for an evening each year to honor their Savior.
In 1942, Christ Church was the setting for the first pageant created by Mary Slagel, now living in Alabama, the late Clare Huey, aunt of attorney Craig Allen, and the late Kay Slagel.
Throughout the next five decades, generations of Ironton families brought the story of Mary and Joseph to life year after year, until a decline in the membership at Christ Church ended the pageant.
However, a few years ago Mary Slagel’s great nephew, Rob Slagel, whose father John was often a featured player, became a driving force behind reviving the spectacle.
Nowadays the venue has changed to the First United Methodist Church in Ironton, but the words and carols remain the same as does the wonderment it brings to the sacred season.
Recently Mary Slagel reminisced about the origins of the play and how it impacted generations of Ironton children.
“When I came to Ironton in 1942, I became friends with Clare,” Slagel said. “She was beginning to write a pageant to use with her Sunday school students and it would use all of the Book of Luke.”
That creating became a collaboration when Slagel, a professional musician who had studied drama and voice at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, added music to the script Huey had devised.
“At the first pageant we had the congregation sing all the carols,” Slagel said. “And whoever was the first baby of the year was the Christ Child. Then the biggest teenager played Mary. Later we got a teenage choir. I taught them all the parts. I taught a lot of people to sing.
“They learned what the Book of Luke is because we did the words from Luke, the King James Version. And the Magnificat I used from an old handbook from 1842. We had people all over the town who came to see it. We would have people standing along the sides of the church.”
Among those who tuned up their vocal prowess under the tutelage of Slagel was Lawrence County Prosecutor J.B. Collier.
“One time my son Mike, Jimmy Collier and Brian Allen (Craig’s brother) were the three kings,” she said. “I taught them to sing ‘We Three Kings.’”
While Slagel thought the trio performed with aplomb, Collier seems to take that review as a bit of exaggeration.
“I’m glad I took up law instead of acting,” the prosecutor joked when asked for his memories of the pageant.
Gretchen Walsh, daughter of Common Pleas Judge Charles Cooper and his wife, Annette, was the Christ Child in the 1980 pageant. Their son, Clark Cooper, was always one of the Kings.
“To this day I can hear Kathy Allen, her little voice. She had a little Dorothy Hamill haircut. She was the angel Gabriel,” Annette Cooper said. “The children loved it. The program never changed. The consistency and repetition was wonderful. It gave them a sense of belonging. Mary was a true lady. She loved the children and the music. She would go the extra mile for those children. She was totally devoted to Christ Episcopal.”
Allen’s mother, Carol Allen, remembers the pageant experience as a way for the children to deepen their understanding of the story of the birth of Jesus and that ancient way of life.
But it was also a way for parents to learn to endure with grace their children’s individuality. Like the time when Allen’s daughter wanted to add her own embellishments to the traditional story line.
“Kathy was one of the cherubs and instead of wanting to sit in the front and watch the kings, she decided to do some acrobatics,” Allen recalled.
Then there was the performance when Allen’s other daughter, Laura, took the starring role and made it into a speaking part.
“She started off such a docile Baby Jesus, but by the time the pageant was well-started, she was screaming,” Allen said.
One of the first to play the Christ Child was Mary’s son, Mike, who like so many others continued to grow in to new parts in the play, often joined by children from other city churches.
“You’d start a month beforehand and the children just loved it. It was a major event,” Mike Slagel said. “You grew up through the various parts. The ultimate position was the reader who was the older boy or girl, who would read the story that went along with the parts. All of that was orchestrated.”
And then again maybe not everything was so orchestrated, all the time.
“The cherubs would all take their halos off and scratch,” he remembered. “And I’m famous for my line where I was supposed to say, ‘Tell me about the Messiah, Father.’ I came out with ‘Tell me about the big, bad Messiah.’ The church has never let me forget that.”
Yet it was those kinds of breaks in the script director Slagel understood.
“You’d just get these absolutely unaccountable statements because the child’s understanding was not the same. It was always different,” she said.
About five years ago, Rob Slagel and his cousin, Peter Dodgion, decided they wanted to revive the pageant to carry on the tradition their families had started.
“I like the pageant because it is the Biblical story of the birth of Christ,” Slagel said. “There are so many new-fangled non-traditional ways of worshipping God. I feel like a lot of folks have gotten away from the Biblical story. This is great for the kids to build their confidence and increase their awareness of the story. It is just the old-fashioned pageant.”
If you go…
The Christmas pageant will be 6 p.m. today at First United Methodist Church in Ironton. There is no admission charge.