These nontraditional versions on the standard children’s ministry Christmas play will have a big payoff, with less preparation (and stress!) than ever before.
Through the stories of the Old Testament festivals, we learn that God loves for his people to celebrate! And at Christmas, celebrate we do—with programs and parties, caroling and crafting, shopping and sharing throughout the season.
In the middle of this cacophony of Christmas, we long to give our children the memory-making experience of leading their congregation in the true meaning of Christmas. Yet we often find that families are so stressed out by the sheer volume of activities in November and December that rehearsals can send them over the edge. Adding preparation for a full-fledged Christmas production can also nibble away at our Christian education programs and take a giant bite out of children’s regularly scheduled worship. The inevitable casting crises that can arise in trying to slot children into singing or performing roles can even cause those children who end up a twinkle short of star billing to feel less than joyous. So what are you gonna do?
There is a low-stress way to encourage kids to use a variety of talents in the celebration of Christmas and give them the experience of leading a meaningful, memorable worship time with the whole church. The following events may be somewhat nontraditional, but they’ll allow more kids to participate with less preparation and lead your congregation into a unique experience of celebrating the newborn King.
The Christmas Parade
Borrow from the traditions of Mexico in this no-rehearsal Christmas program that works best with smaller congregations. Set up three rooms, each staffed by a Bible-costume-clad innkeeper. Close the door to each room, and put a sign on each room door.
Set out supplies to make a simple paper lantern. Fold and cut a sheet of construction paper into a “snowflake.” Roll the snowflake into a cylinder, staple the overlapping edges, and add a 2-inch-wide paper handle to the top of the cylinder. This looks beautiful with a flashlight shining through.
Set up a poinsettia-making shop. For each person, you’ll need 1/2 of an 11/2-inch Styrofoam plastic ball spray painted yellow and eight red craft feathers. To make the poinsettia, simply push the feathers into the Styrofoam around the outer edge of the ball to create the petals.
Set up a large nativity scene using people or a commercial set to create the atmosphere. In the Mexican celebration of Las Posadas, choose two children to be Mary and Joseph. Others join in throughout the parade. Invite the other children to dress as characters in the Christmas story—a shepherd, an angel, or an animal.
The Christmas Parade
Stage the Christmas parade by having children lead the adults to each of the three designated rooms in order. Depending on your setup, you may need to put masking tape arrows on the floor to help children direct the adults. At each door, the children must knock and ask, “Do you have room for baby Jesus?” As they travel, have these printed words available so they can sing this song to the tune of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”:
We are the seekers of the baby Jesus. Where is there room for baby Jesus to lay? We seek the Savior, born to save the world. Oh, where will we find him, oh, where will we find him, Oh, where will we find him, Christ the Lord?
Visiting the Inns
In the first room, the innkeeper answers, “No, no room in this inn. But you’re searching in the dark! Come and I will give you each a lantern to light your way as you search!” Then children each make a lantern.
In the second room, the innkeeper answers, “No, no room in this inn. But what will you do when you find him? You have no gifts for the baby! Come and I will help you find something to take to him.” As the children create a poinsettia, the innkeeper explains that there’s a legend from Mexico about two children who had nothing to give to the baby Jesus in their church’s nativity scene, so they picked green weeds along the road. Everyone made fun of the children’s gift. Yet having nothing else to bring, they laid their little green plants beneath the manger where baby Jesus lay, and as they stepped back, the plants burst forth with brilliant red flowers— the poinsettia.
In the third room, the innkeeper answers, “SHHH! Such a ruckus! The baby is sleeping.” Everyone enters the room and places their poinsettias around the manger scene as they sing a few selected carols. Take pictures of each child or family kneeling by the manger with the poinsettias as a lovely bright backdrop.
Quick and Easy Christmas Costumes
Here are four low-cost, easy-to-make costumes.
Use a length of white fabric equal to twice the shoulder-to-ankle measurement of the child. Fold the fabric in half lengthwise and cut a head hole from the center of the fold. Put the fabric over the child’s head, and gather it at the waist with gold or silver garland. Make a loop of matching garland for the halo. If you want to add wings, gather a 36-inch square of white netting in the center. Wrap a chenille stem around the center to hold it. Cut two slits in the back of the robe, and use another chenille stem to attach the wings through the slits.
Follow the instructions for the angel costume using colored fabric and rope to tie at the waist. Make a head covering with matching fabric and rope tie.
Use a gray hooded sweat shirt and pair of gray sweat pants. Use safety pins to attach two ears cut from gray felt to the hood. Hot glue a mane of jumbo loopy chenille (found in craft stores) down the center of the hood.
Use a white hooded sweat shirt and a pair of white sweat pants, both turned inside out. Use safety pins to attach two black felt ears to the hood. Face paint a black dot on the “sheep’s” nose.
Christmas Shadow Montages
Use as few as five or as many as a hundred performers in this series of staged scenes that tell the story of Christmas.
Hang a large white sheet (or several sheets sewn together) at the front of your worship area. Use a bright light behind the sheet so that when children stand between the light and the sheet, their shadows appear on the screen for the audience (on the other side) to view. You may wish to experiment with different colored lights for special effects. If you have many children and a large area, you can hang multiple sheets in different places around the room. The effect is best when the remainder of the room is darkened.
Have the children dress in Christmas story costume. You’ll also need simple props, such as a box for the angel to stand on, a cot with blankets for Joseph to lie on, shepherds’ crooks, a manger with hay, and a doll. Each scene requires one or more readers to present the Scripture passages. See “Telling the Story” section below for scene sequencing ideas.
In each scene, the actors may portray the characters in a freeze frame, or they may pantomime action. Both techniques are effective in shadow. At the end of each scene, the actors freeze and count to ten before the light is turned off. Then the whole group of children sings while the actors for the next scene take their positions. Repeat this process for each scene.
Telling the Christmas Story
Here’s a traditional sequence for telling the Christmas story, with suggested caroling breaks. Use this sequence (or develop your own) for the “Shadow Montage” or the “Screen Shots” program.
Opening: “Go Tell It on the Mountain”
Scene 1: Mary and the Angel; Luke 1:26-38
Scene 2: Joseph and the Angel; Matthew 1:18-24
Narrator: Luke 2:1-7
Children sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Scene 3: Shepherds, sheep, and one angel; Luke 2:8-12
Children sing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.”
Scene 4: Shepherds and many angels; Luke 2:13-14
Children sing “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Scene 5: Shepherds and sheep; Luke 2:15-16
Children sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Scene 6: Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, animals, and a manger with baby Jesus; Luke 2:16-20
Children sing “Silent Night! Holy Night!” or “Away in a Manger.”
This high-tech idea requires a lot of work to set up, but it offers a virtually stress-free program day.
Instead of having the kids perform actions on the day of the program, create a slide or Microsoft PowerPoint presentation of the scenes of the Christmas story. It seems to work well to enact a different scene each week for the six weeks preceding your program (or even earlier). Plan to shoot a whole lot as you let different groups of children don the costumes to enact each scene.
If you’d like to involve even the youngest children, take pictures of the babies in your nursery and show them while the kids sing “Angels We Have Heard on High.” You can get really creative with photo editing software to dress them as little angels. Or simply put a pair of wings and a halo on each cooperative baby as you take the pictures.
During the program, have the kids sing as the show plays behind them, but be sure to show it to them first to avoid a lot of turned heads.
Enlist the help of church members to share their stories of Christmas in this low-prep intergenerational program for any size church.
About six weeks before your scheduled program, ask older church members to tell you about Christmas memories that are important to them. This can be especially effective if you have adults who grew up in other parts of the world. As you hear the stories they’ll share, determine questions the children might ask to assist with the flow of conversation. Some natural questions might include “Where did you grow up? What did you do on Christmas Eve? What was your favorite Christmas song to sing?”
With each story, link it with an appropriate carol. For example, if one adult recalls how her family observed one hour of silence between dinner and bedtime each Christmas Eve, use “Silent Night! Holy Night!” with that story. Practice all the carols a few times with the kids, and tell them which person will share the story before each carol. Assign questions to specific children for each story.
You might also want to enlist the kids’ help in making scenery such as a roaring fire in the fireplace and cozy living room furniture. Set up the scenery to reflect a comfortable space with a rocking chair for the adult near center stage and enough places for the kids to sit on the floor. Arrange the children around the rocking chair so they’re attending more to the storyteller than to the audience.
You may wish to assign stage movements for each scene, like having the kids who are going to ask the predetermined questions stand and walk to the person. To help children maintain their stage presence, you may also have them hold quiet toys, as though each one is holding a Christmas present. If you typically use microphones in your worship area, it’s best to use a boom and to have someone move the microphone to the people who are speaking.
At the end of each story and as the next storyteller approaches, have the children sing the associated carol. You may wish to have the congregation join in, or you may prefer to have the children perform the music themselves. Because they’re seated, it’s perfectly all right for them to have song sheets or projected lyrics.
Close the Christmas program by having the whole congregation stand and sing “Joy to the World!” together. Or consider closing with a variation of the Iraqi tradition of passing the “touch of peace.” Have your children each go out to the congregation and touch one person. Each of these people touches one other person until everyone has felt the touch of this holiday blessing.
The Christ Child Around the World
Have children divide the work equally in this nontraditional worship that works especially well for larger churches.
Instead of a traditional worship service, have your kids research and set up stations in a gym or fellowship hall to show how baby Jesus is welcomed around the world. Form multi-age groups that’ll plan mini-presentations according to their selected country and interests. There are many traditions that lend themselves to wonderful displays. For example, a tradition in Malta is to sow wheat on clots of cotton four to six weeks before Christmas and raise it in a dark cupboard. The result is snow-white grass to line baby Jesus’ bed.
Let each group choose what to do to best share the religious heritage of the country it selects. If some sing, then give them an area to perform. If some cook, let the congregation sample their food or take home copies of their recipes. This gives every child a chance to shine in the arena each chooses.
To direct each group’s endeavors, you may set some standards you want each group to meet, such as the following:
- Each group will decorate a 6×6-foot area in the gym that could include a flag of the country selected, a display or picture of the country’s representation of baby Jesus, a poster about religious traditions, a costume of religious celebration for a person or doll, a tape or video of the country’s Christmas music, sculptures or models, or a cooking project to share (with copies of the recipe for everybody).
- Each group must prepare to talk about its country as people visit its presentation station.
- Set up the day before the presentation, and let the children take turns exploring each other’s stations.
- During the presentation, encourage the congregation to roam freely.
- Then complete the experience by gathering everyone to sing carols the children have chosen.
Lori Niles is the co-author of The Warm and Wonderful Church Nursery (Group Publishing, Inc.).