Short, sweet holiday tradition
Winterport — For two nights every year, for about 15 minutes each, the youngest residents of Winterport take priority over traffic on the nation’s oldest north-south highway.
The 45th annual Winterport Live Nativity is set for Friday and Saturday, Dec. 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. in front of the Union Meeting House on Main Street, Route 1. Children from toddler to tweens will enact the Christmas story, which will be narrated by the production’s sole adult. The short pageant includes live animals, well-worn and repaired costumes and hand-built props, drawing on decades of community involvement and dedication.
That involvement includes local and state police, who coordinate the traffic stop with the town’s fire department — the fire department also clears out a bay for the young cast members and helps them cross the street safely; town officials, who arrange with Central Maine Power to turn off the street lights in the vicinity of the Live Nativity; the local Boy Scouts, who took on the storage and maintenance of the crucial crèche after the Calvary Apostolic Church burned; and the town’s several other churches, which store costumes and props (including the inn door that has been around so long no one remembers its origin), host rehearsals and provide narrators.
Most of all, the Winterport Live Nativity involves the town’s families. This year’s Live Nativity is dedicated to the Hauger family, whose participation over the years has included providing many of the pageant’s animals. In 2012, a third generation of Haugers enters the Winterport Nativity; Jayden Hauger will play the Littlest Angel, who holds the Jesus doll, Saturday night.
“The Littlest Angel is the youngest child. If they get nervous, we put a shepherd’s costume on one of the parents so they can be there with them,” said Dean El-Hajj.
Dean and Lynda El-Hajj took over organizing the pageant two years ago and their family is well represented in the cast. Dean and his brother grew up doing the Winterport Live Nativity, and Dean and Lynda's oldest daughter is zeroing in on a common goal.
“A lot of the kids who grow up doing it try to play every role,” Dean said.
Friday cast members
Narrator: Deacon Tim Dougherty of St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church
Kings: Maria Andrew, Moxie Flannagan, Chelsea El-Hajj
Inn Keeper: Cassandra El-Hajj
Mary: Mary Dube
Joseph: Kenney Brewer-Frazee
Hill Angels: Julia Andrew, Augusta Flannagan
Highest Angel: Catrina El-Hajj
Hill Shepherds: Sophie Dube, Pheona El-Hajj, Keaton Tracey, Marnie Tracey, Rachel Palmer
Street Shepherds: Makayla Dorcy, Ruby El-Hajj, Piper Tracey, Owen Knapp
Littlest Angel: Alice Knapp
Saturday cast members
Narrator: Pastor Aaro Martin of Winterport Baptist Church
Kings: Mica Martin, Julia Andrew, Cassandra El-Hajj
Inn Keeper: Maria Andrew
Mary: Kaylee Harnish
Joseph: Kenney Brewer-Frazee
Hill Angels: Ruby El-Hajj, Catrina El-Hajj
Highest Angel: Chelsea El-Hajj
Hill Shepherds: Pheona El-Hajj, Sarah Damboise, Emma Damboise, Rachel Palmer, Marcus Martin
Street Shepherds: Eva Cherry, Natalia Charles, Makaya Dorcy
Littlest Angel: Jayden Hauger
With that in mind, and a desire to include all who want to be in the production, the cast is different each of the two nights. The El-Hajjs’ 12-year-old daughter Ruby is playing a Hill Shepherd Friday and a Hill Angel Saturday, while 6-year-old Pheona is a Hill Angel both nights. Their three El-Hajj cousins also are in the mix; Chelsea plays the Highest Angel Saturday. “High” in Winterport Live Nativity terms refers not to status or stature but to location. The meeting house, built in 1834, is set up on a hill. The crèche is placed on the lower, flat area in front, near the street. Thus, the cast includes Hill Angels, Hill Shepherds and Street Shepherds. The audience, which makes its way to the site on foot, flashlights in hands, stands on the opposite of Main Street/Route 1A.
“At the end, they all walk over and become part of the ceremony,” said Dean.
The script has had a few minor tweaks over the years but is the same one used from the beginning, written by the Rev. Gilbert McDowall, according to Elizabeth A. Thieme’s 2008 history of the pageant.
“I do remember Gil McDowall of the Methodist church in town wrote the story that started the whole thing,” said Jackie El-Hajj, Dean’s mother. “I think he kind of meant to bring the Catholics and Methodists together to do something.”
Jackie and her good friend Judy Pickering both had boys the right age to be in the first pageants. Dean said the age range is generally 4 to about 12.
“Once they become teenagers, well, they have a lot of things to do,” he said.
Weather has canceled a few nights over the years, but every November the call goes out and families gather for role assignment. As much as the calendar allows, the Winterport Live Nativity takes place the weekend before Christmas, and the only real rehearsals take place the weekend before that and on pageant days.
“Everybody’s so busy, so we try to make it easy for families,” said Dean.
The pageant began dedications in 1997, according to Thieme’s history; the first honoree was Linda Bright, pageant chairwoman for 20 years. In 2004, the Winterport Live Nativity was dedicated to the men and women of the Armed Forces. The only other non-townsperson dedication was in 1998, the year Betty Hauger’s pony Troubles died; Troubles had been a longtime cast member, carrying Mary for many years.
The years of tradition coalesce into 15 minutes on two of the shortest nights of the year.
“Oh, it’s a wonderful thing! Such a beautiful sight on the ledges — it’s gorgeous,” said Jackie El-Hajj.
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or email@example.com.