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A Christmas tradition

Nativity comes alive each year in Springfield

By Patricia Buschette

The shepherds at the manger after the birth of Jesus in the Springfield Nativity Pageant, a community tradition currently in their 36th season. Contributed photo

The birth of Jesus as set forth in the Gospel, according to Luke, has been celebrated for centuries. For pageant organizers in Springfield, Minn., the presentation of the birth of Jesus has been a visual experience for 36 seasons.

In 1986, a group of other visionaries from Springfield, organized under the acronym SANTA (Springfield Area Nativity Theater Association) determined they would present the Nativity story as realistic as possible. While the story of Christmas throughout the centuries remains unchanged, the creative nature of planners of this community from Brown County, Minnesota has used many years of experience to improve an experience for the hundreds who flock to the community to hear the story one more time, and experience Springfield’s gift to visitors. In 2017, WCCO Television named it “Best Outdoor Pageant in the State of Minnesota.”

The first performance, still a new idea, and without the benefit of earlier experience, had the potential of disaster. “It was planned as a parade,” Ben Luense, an early member of the group explained. The location of the pageant was on the street in central business district with Nativity cast and animals moving through the audience that parted as huge camels came through.

Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem during the 2018 pageant. Contributed photo

“Backdrops were set up in front of the businesses,” Ben said. “We had no idea how many were coming. The crowd was massive. As camels came by we started hauling cement blocks and planks for people to sit. Places were needed to store equipment so it was stored in my business.”

After many years of service, Ben retired from his role as set coordinator and handed off to Nick Dauer. The location of the event has changed. Eventually it moved to the baseball park then the football field in Riverside Park.

“The association was not happy because of damage to the grounds,” Ben said. “When the field was redone, we had to find a new location. That’s when we moved to the east parking lot of the Springfield Community Center. It worked out well,” Ben added.

The stable is on wheels so it remains set up. After the pageant, backdrops are taken down and put on hayracks. There are always those who will help, even in cold weather. Sometimes the audience helps take the set down.

The work of the original group of planners 37 years ago is now assumed by younger generations as responsibility is passed down. However, traditions remain. Dr. R.M. Tessien who wrote the original narrative, much of which is still used today, went to the Community Hospital and recorded a newborn baby’s cry for use in the pageant. It is still being used today.

Lucy Potter, whose role in costuming was assumed when an earlier group retired, remembers that first pageant. “I remember standing with my children as the camels and sheep came by.” ‘Mama, I want to do that,’ her son said. Now an adult, he is a shepherd, and if needed, is pulled over to be a scribe.

Nick, Crystal Dauer and infant have served as Mary, Joseph, and baby three times. “Our family continues to participate, the girls as Archangel Gabriel and angels and the boys are enthusiastic about being shepherds,” Nick said.

Mary and Joseph seek shelter at the Inn at the Springfield Nativity Pageant. The scene includes Mary riding in on a donkey. Sometimes the donkey sticks to the script and sometimes he/she doesn’t. Contributed photo

Performing an outdoor pageant in the winter in Minnesota could be a problem. “In the pageant’s early years someone described the outdoor pageant as ‘tremendous potential for disaster,’” Jeff Krueger remembered. It is clear there were weather challenges.

Nick related what was almost a disaster. “We set up easily in 1 – 1 ½ hours. It went beautifully. Saturday afternoon the wind came up and took the set down. Monday was a miserably cold day with a wind chill below zero. Volunteers arrived to help, and at the end of the day we were set up again.”

However, Minnesota was not done with its challenges.

“Friday was the first performance but that day a snowstorm dumped snow on the set. We called a bunch of people who moved, pushed, and blew snow. That night we had the most magnificent pageant,” Nick said.

He paused and went on. “It was holy. We were tested.”

Ed Meidl, a king in the pageant for over 30 years, does not wear gloves during the performance and grows a beard every fall to fit his character. Contributed photo

There were problems in addition to weather. Mark Clennon recalled the year that the Star of Bethlehem got stuck. “It was to move on a cable from the Farmers Elevator to the Building Center. It got stuck part way and would go no further.” However, the show went on.

Then there was the part played by pigeons who served as doves. “At the end of the performance we released the pigeons who were scripted to fly away, but rather went for the light of buildings. “I envisioned a dozen pigeons in the Building Center the next morning,” Ben said.

The number of participants required to produce the impressive worship experience is incredible. Costuming, promotion, sound, stage set up, casting onstage roles, lighting, music, and other responsibilities are crucial. Teenage boys transport costuming, and the Brookville- Burnstown 4-H club assists. Local electricians, Farmward Cooperative, the local greenhouse that donates garland, all are examples of community spirit.

The production makes use of families of all ages, and each has an integral role. “It takes a village to be successful,” Nick said.

All of the church communities of Springfield participate in the planning with a representative from each church serving on the committee. Those representatives provide members to be shepherds, angels, Holy Family, etc.

The shepherds wait among the angels. Photo by Springfield Advance-Press.

There are “census takers” as visitors are registered to provide records of attendees. Numbers range from 500-600, while last year 700 came to see the performance. There is no charge but a free will offering is accepted. Ushers, dressed as Roman soldiers direct guests to seating.

The animals are an important part of the event, Mark Clennon explained. A resident of Springfield who raised animals supplied camels and donkeys and now has a zoo in Brainerd. He wants to be on the schedule, and while he charges a fee, it is very reasonable.

“Local people who bring goats, sheep, geese, and ducks give a market place appearance,” he added.

“Donkeys don’t like light so sometimes it takes time to reach the manger,” said Jeff Krueger. “We sing seven verses of Silent Night in case the donkey acts up. One year the donkey balked and would go no further. Joseph merely helped Mary disembark and they walked the short distance to the manger.”

Ed Meidl rides in on a camel in this scene. Ed has been a king in the Springfield Nativity Pageant for over 30 years. Contributed photo

Donkeys that are tied can pull the set down. “Now we use steel posts,” Ben said.

Costuming is important. Lucy Potter inherited the responsibility of costuming when earlier members retired. While many original costumes are used, additional ones are added. “Costumes have to be created to fit over snowmobile suits,” she pointed out. “I wash them or have them dry cleaned each year. Before production they have to be brought out of storage, and checked over for any repairs,” she said.

While rules have been relaxed, cast members were admonished not to wear glasses or jewelry in acknowledgment that these were not a part of that first Christmas. Ed Meidl, who has been a wiseman for 30 years, does not wear gloves even when it is frigid. His slave carries his gloves, available when needed. Every fall he grows a beard to add to the ambiance of his character.

The pageant choir is warmed up and ready for the outdoor performance of “Silent Night.” Contributed photo

In earlier years, two pageants were held each night. The schedule now is for one performance each evening. Attendees are urged to wear warm clothing for the 40-minute performance. While the weather may be uncertain, animals may balk, and equipment malfunction, one thing is certain, and that is the effect the pageant has on guests and planners.

“We don’t care how many people come ... if one person changes their ways and is affected by the message, it is worth it,” said Mark. “We see the looks on faces, smiles and tears, as they leave, wanting to write checks. The pageant touches so many people. Each year people are amazed.”

This year the event will be held December 8 and 9 at 7 p.m.

“After all this time, I still cry every year,” Lucy said as she fought back tears remembering the emotion of the pageant.

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