Bigger than Baby Jesus

It was misty Tuesday morning, Dec. 14, 2011; more “Jack The Ripper” London than Christmastime Minneapolis, and to get the best seats, folks started lining up off Diamond Lake Road around 8 a.m. Grandparents were encouraged to park in the church parking lot, everyone else on the street, and a calm phalanx of nervous-proud parents warming up on styrofoamed coffee, baked goods and infectious grins made its way up the school steps as the church bells for 8:40 mass peeled out across the rooftops, Minnehaha Creek, Washburn water tower, Beek’s Pizza and beyond.

The occasion was the grade school Christmas pageant, a generation- and continent-spanning tribal ritual of lights, costumes, music, magic and holy young voices joined in bright song whose rich history and connective powers extends from Bedford to Taylors Falls and landed last week in what may well go down as its most gloriously-staged incarnation to date — in the auditorium of Annunciation Catholic Grade School in South Minneapolis.

What made this one different, however, was self-evident in the cheeky title: “The Lad From Bethlehem.” The pageant — an original Christmas program celebrating the birth of Christ as told by the songs and lyrics of the Beatles — was created and directed by Elizabeth Lamb Kramer, and the great music educator Mary Martin Strickland (known simply as Mrs. Strickland to her legions of loyal former students and fans), who will be vetted next fall for her 40-year-old creative arts program at the school.  

“Lad” dovetailed sweetly with an already rich Beatles-centric December that included Curtiss A’s tribute to John Lennon with The Minnesota Beatles Project at First Avenue a few nights prior. Truth be told, Mrs. Strickland and the kids topped ’em all. A snow globe of innocence and irreverence, the 70-minute lovefest began with the lights down, giving way to soft stars and two glowing Christmas trees bookending the stage, and Strickland’s hushed acoustic guitar backing a chorus of kids trilling, “All You Need Is Love.”

From there, it was a feast of costumes from across the world and kindergarteners to 8th graders lifting their voices in such holiday staples as “Yellow Submarine,” “Blackbird,” “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” “Twist and Shout,” and, naturally, “Here Comes The Sun.” The money moment came during “Let It Be,” when mother Mary carried baby Jesus to the front of the stage.

At the center of it all was Strickland, her enthusiasm and passion rubbing off on everyone in the room and, in the end, naturally deflecting any potential charges of sacrilege with a program note that read, “While the story of the Nativity transcends all time, the Beatles’ lyrics transcend a couple generations of music, speaking words of love, peace, joy and hope. What could be more Christmas than that?”