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Story by Emma Tilley. Photos by Paul Bickford.

Christmas PageantThe Youth Christmas Pageant is a long-standing tradition at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Its history is tucked away in the hearts of generations of members and in old bulletins.

Tradition says the pageant started in 1947 but the oldest bulletins give evidence from even earlier. Bulletins from the 1930s describe youths and young adults putting on a Christmas pageant on the Sunday evening just before Christmas. The Baptist Young People’s Union met on Sunday nights and a Christmas play or pageant, caroling, and a Christmas party were part of their regular Advent season.

Christmas PageantThroughout most of its history, however, the pageant consisted of an adult choir concert with youths enacting the Christmas story. One of the pageant’s most dedicated volunteers, Ginny Saunders, became part of the pageant when she came to FBC in 1950. Having grown up involved in drama, she immediately found her area – costumes and makeup. She explained the importance of costuming: “For Mary the white goes on first, then the darker color second. And it is important nothing slips!” Costume fitting – hemming, pinning, adjusting seams – is also important, but she says, “Lipstick is crucial, wearing a costume that’s well done [is important] but you can’t see anyone if they’re not wearing makeup.” The first pageant she remembers being part of was “during the time Dr. Adams was pastor … [with his daughter] Betsy … playing Mary.”

Christmas PageantPhil Mitchell joined the FBC staff as Minister of Music in 2001 and began to include the youth choir as a major part of the pageant. In the early 2000s, drama was added to the Youth Christmas Pageant. Todd Ritter, Nancy LeSac and later Ann Carter wrote drama portions for the pageants. This year Bart Dalton, Minister to Students, is writing the pageant. Some of the scripts in the past have been based on favorite Christmas movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life (in 2008 and 2014) and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (in 2013). In the early 2010s Charles Tilley began to get the youths heavily involved in building sets for the pageant each year.

One of the many joys of watching the pageant is the family occasion it has become. Generations of those who have played Baby Jesus and other roles watch eagerly each year as the next group of youths presents the story of Christmas.

FUN FACTS:
•    In the late 80s Ann Carter, Ruth Szucs and Hope Cumbia participated as choir members. Today they all work with youths.
•    In 1996, the pageant was held outdoors.
•    In 1997, the One Accord 10th anniversary concert joined with the pageant.
•    Youth choirs, ensembles, and solos began to be part of the pageant in the late 90s.
•    Sarah Ann Brown in 2014 and her father Rob Brown in 1983 portrayed Baby Jesus. Sarah’s grandfather Kent Brown was Joseph in 1974.

Christmas Pageant

Author’s note: Our church holds almost a century’s worth of bulletins, photos, and other items from its past. These are stored in the history room at the back of the Chapel. Virginia Darnell, FBC’s historian, maintains these records. Read related story: What Does Virginia Darnell Know?


Emma TilleyEmma Tilley is a student at the College of William and Mary, with a major in Religious Studies and a minor in Art. She plans to attend seminary after graduation and work in a congregational setting. Emma grew up in the youth group at FBC and served as a 2015 summer intern in the youth and community ministries. She enjoys ceramics and kayaking. Read related story, The Summer of the Interns.

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Photos by Bev Alexander, Win Grant, Lowrey Holthaus and Linda Moore.

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