What do Rodeo Queen, hay bales, and sheep all have in common?
All are used as props to host one of the longest-standing Christmas traditions still flourishing in our community: the annual, live Outdoor Nativity Pageant produced by local members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This December marks 33 years since the hallowed tradition began with humble roots back in 1980. Over the years, the annual crowd-pleaser has relocated several times and overcome a myriad of challenges to evolve into its current iteration, replete with a magnificent indoor crèche display (featuring over 200 nativity scenes), live musical entertainment, hot chocolate and treats, and a cozy reader’s corner for young children.
The one constant through the years has been the fact that this nativity re-enactment features a live cast of youth and adults, including a real donkey actually ridden by Mary, and bleating sheep.
The production originally ran with just 11 cast members (currently 28) for a number of years at City Hall park in the early 1980s, relocating to Kin Canyon for a stint, Heritage Square for nine years, and the church’s Kentwood chapel for the past four years.
Featuring stirring recorded music and narration against a backdrop of bright costumes and dramatically lit sets, the pageant re-enacts the time-honoured scriptural account of Christ’s birth — with shepherds, kings, and angels heralding in the heavenly child.
As any connoisseur of live theatre can attest to, things don’t always go down as scripted, and this Christmas pageant has certainly witnessed its share of hiccups and hurdles over the decades — including the almost clichéd scenario one year of a stubborn donkey who defiantly refused to budge, leaving Mary to trudge her appointed path on foot.
On another occasion in Kin Canyon, a spectacular, full-grown doe casually trundled through the middle of a live performance with all onlookers holding their breath for the majesty of the stunning scene.
They’ve taken in stride everything from straying animals to failed generators, from deteriorating sets and costumes to the nip of winter’s fury, but only once in all those years have they actually had to cancel the pageant altogether.
Back in the late 1990s, cast and crew were preparing for their 7 p.m. start when a winter storm blew in with little warning, causing temperatures to fall so rapidly within that next half-hour period that organizers were forced to cancel all nine performances over the entire three-day event.
Understandably, the part of baby Jesus has always been portrayed by a simple doll — except on one special occasion when a young local couple offered to play Mary and Joseph, insisting to use their own newborn baby as the holy Christ child.
The pageant acknowledges a debt of gratitude to many within the community who’ve contributed so much over the past 33 years to keep this poignant tradition alive and well. For years, for example, the folks at Turple Brothers loaned the pageant a generator at no cost to power the production’s sound, lights, and music.
After years of renting out one particular spotlight for the annual event, local retailer Alberta Display finally outright gifted the spotlight to the church for continued use in subsequent pageants.
We are blessed to live in a community with such a strong spirit of giving and connectedness throughout the year, such that cherished traditions like the pageant can be nurtured and preserved.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering … Rodeo Queen happens to be the name of the donkey loaned annually at no cost to the church by a generous Central Alberta family who exemplifies this spirit of selfless community service.
Owing to the current renovations of the Kentwood chapel, this year’s pageant will run nightly at 7, 7:30 and 8 p.m. on Dec. 16, 17, and 18 in the south parking lot of the Bower chapel, located at 3002 47th Ave. (adjacent to Kin Canyon), at no cost to the public.
Vesna Higham is a local lawyer, former Red Deer city councillor and a freelance columnist.