Twinkle, Twinkle, little stars
Traditionally at Christmastime the children of Maher Avenue put on a nativity pageant
The shepherds come in bathrobes with tea towels on their heads, carrying inverted hockey sticks as crooks; the angels in tinsel halos wear belted sheets and wings made of coat hangers and tin foil; the Wise Men dress in whatever makes them look regal and carry shoeboxes wrapped in silver and gold paper. And Baby Jesus, often a doll, is sometimes a tiny wriggling human being swaddled in snowsuit and mittens.
For the past fifty-six years, the children of Maher Avenue (and from a couple of houses on Patterson) have recreated the nativity scene outdoors in somebody’s backyard or on a front porch, a treasured twenty-minute vignette that has become a neighborhood ritual and draws back former residents with their video cameras. On the appointed bone-chilling, see-your-breath night in December, families and friends gather with candles in hand to watch the little ones perform, and join in the caroling as they look forward to the afterglow of hot chocolate and mulled cider across the street.
This is a show performed by children and directed by teens who have come up through the ranks as actors.
“There’s a system,” says John Heard, a junior at Greenwich High School who directed it last year with his twin sister Anna and Lucy Cobbs. “You start as angels or shepherds, graduate to Mary or Joseph and end up directing.” He remembers his first year. It was snowing, freezing cold and two glaringly bright floodlights shone down on them. It was “really weird,” so John did what any self-respecting four- year-old angel would do. He broke ranks and ran to his mother.
Lucy, now a student at Deerfield, thought it was exciting as a little girl to perform in front of the whole neighborhood. “And it’s neat to be directed by high school kids and have someone to look up to,” she says.
History has it that back in 1946, Maher Avenue residents Stanley and Lois North gathered some children and their parents for Christmas caroling up and down the street, ending up at their house for hot chocolate. A couple of years later, sixteen-year-old Barbara Burke, one of the two daughters of Judge Burke, suggested to Lois that it would be fun to have a pageant preceding the carols and chocolate. She was interested in drama and loved to write plays.
“It was the older girls — the Burkes, Norths and maybe the Reynoldses — who put it together,” recalls Dorothy Mills, one of the original mothers along with Audrey Mason, Juliet Hollister, Kay Cooke and Julie Taylor. “It was all done by kids, and the exciting thing is that it’s still going! Oh, we might have helped with the costumes; but we were just told to bundle up and come watch it — and make sure our husbands got there,” she says with a laugh.
“You know, the men would come home tired from the train and think, ‘Oh, my Gawd, we’ve got to go out?’ But then, of course, they got filled with Christmas spirit.”
The Burkes had a log cabin on a hill in their backyard — a one-room structure with a front porch where Mary and Joseph could sit with their baby in a crèche.
“It was perfect for a pageant,” saysDr. Dickerman Hollister. But in the eighties, it burned down — “probably a victim of teen smoking,” says Dick, who by age eleven was so sick of being a shepherd that he’d been allowed to trail behind Paul Burke and the Mills twins as the fourth king (see sidebar). Another house was built on the site, but the venue has been nearby backyards, and for the past several years, the front porch of the house next door, now owned by Lucinda and Brian Harris.
“So I inherited it,” says Lucinda.
“I had a variety of kids who could direct it, and that’s how I got to know my neighbors and all these cute little things I never would have known as my kids were getting older.”
Marie Dolan, a relative newcomer to Maher Avenue, opened her home for rehearsals this year. And across the street, Fifi Sheridan and Paul Barbian strung Christmas lights in the rafters of their carport for the party after the show and readied the groaning board, mulled wine and traditional bonfire for toasting marshmallows.
Memories are many, and each one wonderful. Once a drummer emerged from the woods beating loudly to herald the arrival of the kings. Another year the angels burst into a lively rendition of “Day by Day” from Godspell. Catherine Hollister Ecton recalls that Jeffrey Reynolds, who was in charge of lighting, was sick in bed; but he cared so passionately about his job that he snuck out to the roof, climbed down and ran across the street to hold the flashlight.
“The fact he was barefooted and in his pj’s didn’t seem to matter,” she says. “His father was a doctor anyway!”
Catherine also remembers dressing up the family dogs as sheep — Blackie (the Cookes’), Freckles (the Taylors’), Pinnochio (the Hollisters’) and Tippy (the Millses’) — for the shepherds to herd on their walk to the cabin. “They were rarely cooperative,” she admits.
Isn’t it wonderful that in this crazy world of today we can find a Rockwellian neighborhood right in downtown Greenwich? A little street where, for an unbroken sixty years, families have come together to celebrate Christmas and the spirit of love?