Out & About: 75 years since its founding, Lyme Christmas Pageant still brings community together
|Published: 12-04-2023 4:33 AM
LYME — In the early 1990s, Patience and Aaron Rich performed in the annual Lyme Christmas Pageant.
Now, their 13-year-old son Reed is the fourth generation of the Rich family to participate.
“I for one love the tradition so it’s pretty special for me,” Patience Rich said during an interview at the Lyme Congregational Church before a pageant rehearsal. The couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Jada, performed as an angel when she was in middle school, wearing the same costumes her mother did when she was a child.
The Rich family’s experience is a common one when it comes to the Lyme Christmas Pageant, which has taken place since 1948 — making this year the 75th anniversary. This year’s performances will take place at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 9 at 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 10, at the church. Admission is free, though donations are welcome.
Around 65 community members — including roughly 40 children — are part of this year’s cast. The majority of those who participate live in Lyme, but it is open to people who live in all communities and of all religious backgrounds.
Abbe Murphy, who has served as the pageant producer and choreographer for around 25 years, said that legend has it that the pageant was started by a group of mothers in Lyme who were worried that Christmas was becoming too commercialized.
“They wanted their children to go back to the more basic meaning of Christmas,” said Murphy, who performed in the pageant as a child in the 1980s. “They had people in the church, in the community, who had certain skills and brought those skills to the mix.”
Among the founders was Louise Wood, who had trained with the legendary choreographer and dancer Martha Graham. Wood infused the traditional Christmas story with dance.
“It’s always been a dance pageant,” said Murphy, who also sings in the pageant choir.
Tracy Penfield danced in the pageants as a middle school student in the late 1960s, when Wood still served as choreographer.
“She made an enormous impression on me,” Penfield said.
After returning to the Upper Valley in the 1980s, Penfield became the pageant’s choreographer herself in 1986 — a role that she held for 26 years. While all children have an opportunity to participate, the majority of the dancing is performed by the middle school angels who are typically girls in grades six through eight. Adults and older teenagers fill the roles of Mary, Joseph, the three kings and other characters. There’s also a choir and other musicians.
“I did it, yes, for this history of it, and the connection of Lyme which I felt and still feel very deeply. I really loved introducing these middle school girls to dance,” said Penfield, who now lives in Chelsea. While she no longer choreographs the pageant, she returns each year to teach an angel solo dance.
Last Monday, 10 middle school girls gathered at the Lyme Congregational Church for rehearsal. Among them were sixth-graders Olive Hanissian and IslaCameron, who are both 11-year-old Lyme residents. It was Olive’s first year participating in the pageant and Isla’s seventh.
“It’s something my mom gets me to do every year because it’s for the community,” Isla said. Children can begin to participate in the pageant as cherubs when they are around 4 years old. As they grow older, they take on different roles including shepherds and angels. This year, there are around 40 kids participating.
Isla is looking forward to dancing with her 4-year-old sister, Cora.
“It’s going to be fun to have that experience, to do it with her,” Isla said.
Olive decided to participate in the pageant after hearing about it from Isla.
“I like being with everybody,” she said. “It’s a way to build community with people who aren’t in your grade.”
Other angels agreed.
After having a snack on Monday afternoon, the group made its way to the sanctuary for rehearsal. They held wooden sticks in their hands — meant to resemble the electric candles they’ll use during the performances — and practiced choreography under Murphy’s careful eye.
Over the decades, the pageant has had some changes. Murphy introduced new roles for different age groups. The choreography has also developed, but there are many routines that Wood introduced 75 years ago. Some participants come back year after year, including Abbe Murphy’s father, Bill.
“She tells me I have been the innkeeper for 50 years,” Bill Murphy said in a phone interview. “It’s such a community event: People come together and enjoy the pageant and it is a delight to acknowledge the participants as they go through the cycles.”
That sense of tradition has held strong through the years and it is one community members intend to keep going for future generations. Every year, Abbe Murphy looks forward to the moment when the lights go off right before the performance starts.
“There’s this great energy, anticipation. Then the piano starts and they’re just into it,” she said. “It’s a special thing people can feel, both the participants and the audience.”
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3221.