…. I am reminded that like most children I attended a Sunday School at our local Anglican church. At that time it had a “satellite” congregation/chapel in 7th Avenue in Mayfair. This was called “St Giles” and was under the leadership of Mrs Linden, who usually played the organ. Like so many dedicated people in the church she used to wear many hats, and Sunday School at St Giles was one of them.
Each year at Easter and Christmas the Sunday school would hold a “play” (or something resembling it), and all the children were roped in to play parts and parents were roped into providing costumes and or support, Everybody was expected to attend and participate whether we liked it or not. Nobody wanted to invoke the wrath of Father Wallace or Mrs Linden.
Of course these “plays” can be torture for those of us who are shy or can’t sing and who just really wanted to disappear into the background. There are those who are best suited to playing Mary/Joseph. and those who are best suited to being “2nd shepherd watching his flock by night”. Ideally that was the role I wanted and invariably got because a) I cannot sing, b) I am neither cute or good looking c) I can be very shy. And, that is still true today.
Naturally around Christmas when the Nativity Play was being held, carol singing was all the rage and lines of children would give their best rendition of that old favourite…
“While Shepherds washed their socks by night,
all seated round the tub,
a bar of Sunlight soap came down
and glory how they rubbed…”
Clad in slightly used curtains/sheets/blankets we shepherds would watch our flocks of cardboard sheep and deliver our wooden lines while trying our best not too fluff it. Invariably the cutest girls would end up being Mary or angels, while boys would end up being shepherds, wise men (only 3 required), and Joseph. Occasionally a bit of gender bending was required due to a lack of boys or girls. I played a shepherd once and was told by Joseph (or was it Mary?): “Give me the babies bottle” to which I replied “the bottle is broken.” (said bottle having come a cropper shortly before) and I have never lived it down. I am sure that somewhere somebody remembers a shepherd wearing a tablecloth and thick coke bottle specs telling the holy family that the babies bottle was broken. Fortunately in those days cameras were not that popular so no images exist of the annual nativity play that I messed up.
I do not know whether it ever occurred to Mrs Linden how much agony some of us went through during these plays, I suspect though it was more a case of doing what we were told or there would be consequences. We were also expected to participate in various activities such as handing out programmes, showing parents to seats, and singing in the choir (accompanied by a gaggle of children playing the xylophone, drum and triangle). I considered taking up the triangle professionally, but kept on dropping the hammer thingey. Eventually we would graduate from Sunday School and then have to go sit and fidget with our parents on the church pews during the Sunday service.
At some point St Giles closed down and we started to attend Christ Church in Crown Mines. This handsome church is one of the older churches in Johannesburg and was built in 1897. Most of the wooden pews and pulpit were built by Father Vic Wallace who was the parish priest when I was a member of the church. He had worked on the mines for many years and loved reminding us of that fact in his sermons. He had a magnificent singing voice and was a highly skilled carpenter and very dedicated to the church and congregation. Although I was not christened in this church I was confirmed there, and in 1981 my late father would be buried from there.
Every year the church would hold it’s annual fete and everybody was roped into it as well. My brother, an accomplished puppeteer, would usually be persuaded to produce a puppet show for the hordes of bloodthirsty children (and adults) who enjoyed seeing the grotesque Mr Punch belt Judy over the head, and Mr Plod doing the “‘ullo, ‘ullo, ‘ullo, wot’s going on ‘ere then?” line before assaulting Mr Punch with a truncheon. Talk about police brutality and women abuse! Then there was the story about the soppy King and Queen and a missing cake. Alas I do not remember the plot of that one. However, the reason I do know about these shows is that I was always roped into provide a 3rd and 4th hand, my talent with voice impersonations was always in demand for puppet shows, and my brother had quite a reputation for producing a very professional production.
When Father Wallace retired the church was never the same, and eventually we moved from Mayfair and lost touch with the church. I returned there 2011 to visit the Garden of Remembrance, and take some pics. Sadly the church has become a fortress, and yet it is still so beautiful inside with its woodwork, stained glass windows and pipe organ. But I expect falling congregations will eventually put paid to this building and its many memories.
Around about this time every year, in the dusty caverns of my mind, I still hear a choir of toddlers singing about shepherds and their socks accompanied by an cacophony of sound from the orchestra pit, while a diminutive Mary and Joseph walk across a stage towards a light bulb masquerading as a star, and 3 wise men hang around, looking nonchalant, waiting for their cue. And in the audience beaming parents would nod approvingly, all the while thinking “that’s my son/daughter” and, more importantly no cellphones would disturb the sanctity of the annual Nativity Play.