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Time Passages: Springfield’s outdoor Nativity Pageant in 30th year

I’ve always been impressed by the communities or organizations who year after year carry on holiday event traditions that people look forward to attending as part of their routine to celebrate and enjoy the Christmas season.

Part of the pageant includes three kings and a couple camels. On the camels are Daniel O’Callaghan and Andrew Beckman and the trainers walking along side are Kevin Voge and daughter, Cheyanne Vogel, from Vogel’s Exotic Animals. Photo courtesy of Springfield Advocate-Press

Part of the pageant includes three kings and a couple camels. On the camels are Daniel O’Callaghan and Andrew Beckman and the trainers walking along side are Kevin Voge and daughter, Cheyanne Vogel, from Vogel’s Exotic Animals. Photo courtesy of Springfield Advocate-Press

Everyone has their favorite, but one that immediately comes to mind is the community of Springfield’s outdoor living Nativity Pageant which re-enacts the story of the first Christmas, which will be held for the 30th consecutive season this year on Dec. 11 and 12 with one performance each evening at 7 p.m., in Riverside Park.

The pageant is performed by the Springfield Area Nativity Theatre Association and is endorsed by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Springfield churches, whose members give freely of their time and talents.

Planning for the event is a year-round project with committee members attending meetings. Hundreds of dedicated individuals volunteer their assistance in many ways with the pageant being funded by proceeds from a summer celebration, donations from individuals, civic and church organizations.

Longtime Springfield Advance-Press newspaper editor Doris Weber is the pageant communications director and one of several co-founders of the pageant. She said the Nativity Pageant is unique in that its staged under the stars during a Minnesota winter that can present all kinds of weather conditions and challenges. She proudly agrees that the Nativity Pageant is quite possibly the longest running outdoor performance of its kind in the state.

The pageant is presented totally by a local volunteer cast and crew and features a manger scene, a magnificent 35-person community choir and live animals. Special effects, lighting, a stable, sound and a backdrop scene of Bethlehem help complete the presentation.

Local artist Neil Neidt, who designed and painted the Bethlehem town on canvas 25 years ago, is repainting the backdrop with the help of volunteers to give it a fresh look for the 30th season.

The pageant features Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem and finding no room in the inn. They arrive at the stable for the birth of the Christ child, surrounded by angels proclaiming the good news, with shepherds attending their sheep and goats and wise men arriving on camels.

Weber recalled when the pageant was first held in 1986 on the downtown streets of the Springfield business district. “Mary rode a donkey right down the street, and we had so many people attending the first night that we got some bleachers and flatbed trailers put together the following night to make a half circle amphitheater stage,” she recalled.

After three years the production grew and moved to the baseball field at Riverside Park in 1989 setting up in front of the grandstand. “But people really didn’t like it because they wanted to be closer to the manger scene,” Weber explained. “So the next year we went to the football field and set up on the 50-yard line and we’ve been there ever since.”

Originally, the pageant was performed twice each evening on three December nights for six performances but later was reduced to four performances and finally settled on two shows starting in the late 1990s.

Weber recalled the first couple of years the 40 minute production had double casts performing in the pageant, one for both 7 and 8 p.m. “But that was a lot of people to recruit and too much work for the directors to coordinate so we cut back and now have a cast of about 50 actors including a narrator.”

In a typical community theater group actors come and go, but one constant has been Ed Meidl, who has played the role of a king for 29 years. Despite the temperatures he arrives at the stable holding a treasure chest while wearing no gloves on his hands.

“We got a true test of our endurance during the 1989 performance,” recalled Weber. “It was 9 degrees below zero with -40 windchills, and we had only 60 people in the grandstand. The second performance had to be canceled that night but the next night, we had 160 people come to watch in four degree weather and 115 attended the late show. On Saturday it warmed up to 13 degrees and we had a crowd of 700. That year the choir stood out in the open, but after that we had a shelter built for them.”

Weber thinks there’s been only one year that weather, forced the pageant to be canceled and that was due to blizzard conditions.

But the unpredictable weather also has been cooperative at other times, with performances being held in lightly falling snow or rain that sparkles in the lights to give the impression of crystals falling from the night sky.

Except for the first year, the pageant has been authentic using live actors. “Our first year we used a doll to represent the baby Jesus, but since then, we’ve had a live child, and the crowd really likes that,” Weber commented. “Usually the baby is kept warm in a vehicle parked behind the stable and then the child is handed through a trap door in the back of the set when it’s time to be in the manger,” she noted.

Weber added that last year’s casting had special significance when Jeanette Piddle played the role of Mary, 29 years after she was born on the first night the Springfield pageant was held.

The pageant’s cast costumes have been sewed and fitted each year by Lucy Potter and others and are all stored in a room above the First National Bank in town. The animals come from a local exotic animal business and a dairy goat farm.

Two years ago a new donkey was introduced to the pageant but developed a bit of stage fright. “On the night of a rehearsal the donkey carrying Mary got as far as the spotlight leading to the stable, and he stopped,” Weber stated. “Joseph was yanking on his rope but couldn’t move him. The shepherds came over to help, but nobody could budge the donkey so we ended up using a pony the next night,” Weber laughed.

Weber said the pageant is presented free of charge to spectators as a gift from the community of Springfield. She encourages people to dress warmly and comfortably for the yearly outdoor event that comes to life for a beautiful holiday season experience.

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