The children are running around like crazy while mothers sort through white robes and gold-tinsel halos to dress the choir of angels. Ayfer, the director of the Christmas play, is showing Mary how to knee, stand up and walk backwards without tripping over her blue veil. Somebody has decided to give the boys who are playing the shepherds each a long stick as shepherds’ hooks. This is a bad idea. Four boys waiting around to be scared by an angel plus four long sticks only mean trouble. They are twirling and jabbing and thrusting the sticks at each other. I go over and tell them (in basic and bad German) that the sticks are not toys. They calm down for about two minutes and then jump up again.
We are rehearsing for the second annual Weihnachtstheater performed by the Sunday school children of St. Jesaja Syrian Orthodox Church in Gronau, Germany. Ayfer, who is a tiny yet formidable presence, lassoed me into helping with the Sunday school about two years ago. My goal was to support the mothers, marginalized within their own community, who try to offer the children a respite from the two-hour Sunday mass every week.
The Sunday school faces the weekly challenge of not knowing what children, what ages, or how many will show up. Often there are more than thirty children with only two adults to supervise. The children all show up at different times. The room where we meet can suddenly become hijacked to host a breakfast for a visiting dignitary. There are no real supplies, planning, set goals, or team. The priest, church directors, and men, in general, care little to support the Sunday school. Ayfer alone is the powerhouse and she pulls Zekiye, Samira, Minira, (and me) reluctantly but faithfully along with her.
I have fun with the children. One time I brought origami paper and tried to teach them how to fold the square sheet into a crane. About half-way through, they waited eagerly for my next instruction, while I tried to remember what to do. “Ich muss denken … (I must think…),” I said while slowly turning around the colored paper, my brain and fingers searching for the next fold. But my pronunciation was so bad that the children started laughing. “Ich muss stinken! (I must stink!)” they teased me. This kept us laughing for a long time.
Two weeks ago, I led 28 children, ages 4 to 12, in the making of Christmas cards. I brought along a box of old cards I had collected over the years, colored paper, glue sticks, scissors, and ribbon. The children were told they could each take three cards and cut the pictures out to create their own fantasy card. In addition, I had my husband type out a text in Syriac which he then translated into German that the children could paste into their card. They loved this activity and were quietly busy with it for nearly forty minutes as I walked around giving encouragement, suggestions, and help with the glue and scissors.
At one point I overheard a discussion between two of the girls. “She’s not Tante (Auntie),” one said referring to me. Tante is the endearment the children call the women in their community. “She’s Oma (Grandmother).” “No,” argued the friend. “She’s Tante.” This went on for some time until they finally agreed on calling me Tante Katrine. (Praise the Lord!)
But back to the Weihnachtstheater … I suppose you could say I was its midwife. Last year Ayfer dared not envision such a production until I went to the town library and found a children’s book on the Christmas story. Together we talked and talked until she was able to see the play happening before her eyes. One of the malfone (religious teachers) then translated the story into the community’s native Aramaic, the ancient language once spoken by Jesus and his parents.
Last year, I painted a herd of sheep and a donkey and ox. The women spent hours sewing costumes for angels and kings, shepherds and Roman soldiers. Music was arranged and the stage decorated with lights and crib. This year, the ox could not be found and a soldier’s helmet was missing, but we went forward nonetheless.
Two angels are now crying while their mothers insist that they perform in the play. Ayfer sends the crying angels and their distraught mothers home. Christmas is especially stressful for the Suryoye women who must bake the traditional breads and sweets, clean their houses, prepare for two days of non-stop visits from extended family, and make certain all the children are impeccably dressed. The women’s eyes are lined with dark circles and their smiles are strained. They all complain about how there is too much to do and so little time. When I put an arm around one, I feel like I am embracing a hard board.
The Roman soldiers march on stage to announce Augustus’ census. Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph are tossing the plastic doll Jesus into the air. The shepherds cry out the birth of the Christ child three times, and 20-plus little winged angels sing halleluiahs. Ayfer calls for George. Where is George? George troops in behind the angels looking lost. He has just arrived from Syria with his family. He doesn’t speak any Aramaic or German, only Arabic, and I wish I could climb into his head. I catch his eye and give him the thumbs up sign. He smiles back. The three kings arrive with their gifts. The entire cast climbs on stage and sings in ancient Syriac. I stand and give the children a rousing applause.
We can do so little in this world. But out of our small acts, God can perform miracles. Merry Christmas!