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A gift from Springfield

Community has been offering free Christmas pageant for 32 years

When Crystal and Nick Dauer portrayed Mary and Joseph in the annual Springfield Live Nativity Pageant, the experience changed the way they now look at Christmas.

Nick and Crystal Dauer played Joseph and Mary at the Live Nativity Pageant in Springfield, with their son, Jace, as baby Jesus in 2015.

“It gave us a different perspective,” said Nick Dauer, who has been the technical director for the pageant the past three years. “It makes you more aware of what Christmas is really about. When the narrator is telling the story, I would look over and see my wife playing Mary and cuddling our baby, and then the three kings come and pay homage by bringing gifts. Well, it’s all very powerful.”

The Live Nativity Pageant, a two-night outdoor event under the stars on the second Friday and Saturday in December, is perennially one of the most popular Christmas events in southwestern Minnesota. This year marks the 32nd anniversary of the pageant.

This isn’t just a simple outdoor play. It’s a 40-minute narrated performance that follows the first Christmas. And the entire project takes nearly 200 volunteers to run successfully.

“The community keeps this going each year,” said Doris Weber, a board member who has been involved with the pageant since its inception in 1986. “Because it’s become so popular, we never have trouble getting people to help.”

And the one unusual thing is this beautifully run pageant is free of charge.

“We don’t feel right charging for a Christmas story like this,” Weber explained. “This is a gift from our community.”

Over 200 volunteers combine their talents to make this pageant a success year after year. Only one time in those 32 years has the weather forced the pageant to be cancelled.

The pageant is held at Riverside Park, home of the Springfield Tigers football team. Those attending the pageant can be seen bundled up in warm clothes and tucked under blankets to combat the cold evening air. But the pageant is so compelling that no one has ever complained about the weather.

More recent pageant with a full crowd. Contributed photos

“The people watching the pageant usually fill one side of the bleachers, so additional bleachers have to be brought in,” said Weber. “We usually average between 750 and 1,000 people each night.”

And the pageant volunteers range from actors, dancing angels, shepherds, set designers, lighting and sound crew, choir performers and sewers. Even local farmers take time off from harvesting to help move the sets in with their trucks or tractors. And there are live animals brought in for even more authenticity.

“We have three big colored spotlights so we have a lighting crew that sits in the (football) press box,” Dauer explained. “And our sound system is set up in an ice fishing house which was Grandpa Ed’s idea. We have it heated, and the narrator sits in there, too. Jack Hartjes has been narrating our pageant for many years.”

One of the actors portraying a king that leads the wise men into Bethlehem is Ed Meidl, who has been involved every year. Meidl, 83, even grows his beard out a few weeks prior to the pageant to give his part more authenticity.

“I enjoy being a part of all this,” said Meidl, who is also the chairman of the Live Nativity organization that plans the pageant each year. “We want to do this for the people to enjoy. That’s what Christmas is all about.”

Meidl carries a box with treasures in the pageant, but refuses to wear gloves no matter what the temperature is.

“They didn’t wear gloves back then,” he joked. “And another reason I don’t wear gloves is I don’t want to drop the box, and I can get a better hold of it without gloves.”

Many of the actors are veterans who have played the same role several times. But the role of Mary and Joseph often changes due to the requirement that the couple chosen have a baby up to 1 year old to play the part of baby Jesus.

The Dauers, who have five children and a sixth due around Christmas time, have played the part of Mary and Joseph three times, each time with a different one of their children. The first time was 2010 with their daughter, Lydia, the second in 2012 with daughter Farrah, and again in 2015 with son Jace playing the part of baby Jesus.

“The baby is kept in a warm building behind the manger until the very end of the pageant when Jesus is born,” explained Weber, indicating that the baby isn’t exposed to the elements for any length of time like the other actors. “Sometimes a baby will cry during the pageant, but a lot of times it’s so cute to see them looking in awe at all the bright lights.”

The couple for this year’s pageant has yet to be chosen as the time of this printing.

“Just missed this time,” laughed Dauer.

While many attempts at community pageants have come and gone – mainly because the number of volunteers dissipates for various reasons – this pageant flourishes year after year because of a community wide effort.

“All the churches in town are involved in the pageant,” explained Dauer. “We recruit our cast from each church. And each church is responsible for providing two or three volunteers to help set up and take down the sets. And our choir has members from each of the churches. It’s a complete community effort.”

And many of the original organizers are still involved with the pageant.

“That makes a big difference in why it’s so successful, too,” said Dauer. “They’ve kept this going. We’re trying to get some of the younger people involved more so it will continue for many more years.”

And Dauer is one of those younger volunteers. His grandfather, Ed Pautzke, was the original technical director of the pageant. Dauer spent a few years learning the ropes by assisting Pautzke until the latter’s recent passing.

While Dauer has taken over as technical director, Jeff Hillesheim is the director of the cast.

Dauer’s wife, Crystal, will play Elizabeth, a pregnant woman and Mary’s relative. Two of the Dauers’ daughters are dancing angels in the pageant.

The organizers of the pageant that meet six times a year call their group SANTA.

“That way, if someone wants to donate, we tell them to write a check to Santa,” laughed Meidl. “In the summer, we have a float and go around to area parades to promote our pageant. We have several characters on the float. I’m a king and then we also have Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and angels.”

Although there is no fee to attend the pageant, any money raised or donated goes toward repairs or advertising expenses.

Photo from a recent pageant with a full choir. Contributed photo

Even though the pageant runs smoothly the majority of the time, there have been a few bumps along the road.

“I remember one year when one of the kings was coming in on a camel, and when he got off, his pants fell down,” laughed Dauer, who was quick to point out that the gentleman portraying this particular king was wearing a snowsuit under his costume. “We were all laughing because he just kept walking with his pants down around his ankles. He even climbed a couple of steps up to the manger.”

Another story involved a stubborn donkey.

Scene from the first Christmas pageant held in the business district of Springfield in 1986. Contributed photo

“During one pageant a few years ago, Mary was coming into Bethlehem riding on a donkey,” Weber told. “We have some bright lights by the manger, and when the donkey saw the bright lights, he just planted his feet firmly down and stopped right there. The man playing Joseph saw this and walked over and got Mary and walked with her the rest of the way.”

The animals come from former local residents Kevin and Kelly Vogel, who now reside in Brainerd where they own and operate Safari North Wildlife Park.

Camels, donkeys, sheep, goats and calves have been a part of the pageant.

Following the conclusion of the pageant, guests are invited to the nearby community center for refreshments sponsored by the local 4-H club.

“The fact that we all come together for a single purpose is the main reason this pageant continues,” Dauer noted. “We all worship the same god. And there are so many of the original board members still active in the pageant, and they all care so much about this pageant.”

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