For kids performing in church Christmas plays, the experience is about more than having fun. The plays also give them a deeper understanding of faith.
"Christmas isn't about getting anything; it's about giving your time with other people," says Malcolm Koers-Hansen, 8, a cast member in the Christmas play this year at First Congregational Church of Fresno.
Churches in the central San Joaquin Valley have been presenting children's Christmas productions for a long time. They range from traditional pageants, with kids performing as "Mary," "Joseph," "The Wise Men" and "Angels," to contemporary plays, with kids playing themselves in school clothes.
Some churches seek help from organizations that sell performance rights to kids' Christmas plays for about $25 and a promise to donate a portion to nonprofit organizations that help children worldwide. Others use scripts written by church members.
Regardless of the approach, church officials agree they want the plays to excite and engage the audience watching and the children performing in them. They want the kids to learn about and be part of the real Christmas story.
First Congregational Church of Fresno is presenting a contemporary play — "Mrs. Crabtree's Christmas Invitation" — as part of its 10 a.m. service Sunday at the church, 2131 N. Van Ness Blvd.
"Mrs. Crabtree's Christmas Invitation" was written mainly by Chris Boltz, a church member and chairman of the Theatre Arts & Dance Department at Fresno City College. He believes kids have a special ability to convey truths with simplicity.
"One of the great things about the tradition of a Christmas service is bringing the children into the service and contributing to the community of the church," Boltz says. "It takes the children from being a passive participant in the service to being an active participant. I also like to teach them about speaking loudly and clearly, but that comes about from being a theater teacher."
The kids say they are learning a lot during rehearsals at First Congregational Church.
Malcolm, a student in the third grade at Manchester GATE School in Fresno, says it means a lot to him to be in the play.
"I feel special," he says.
"Mrs. Crabtree's Christmas Invitation" is about a church that used to throw a real big Christmas party. The kids decide to resurrect the tradition, but face opposition. Then, Mrs. Crabtree, an older church member, steps in.
Malcolm's sister, Emmaleigh, 10, who is in the fifth grade at Manchester GATE, also is in the cast. She says she is learning a truth about Christmas through the play.
"To me, Christmas is a time for giving and being around people you love and care about," she says.
Nina Hall, 8, who is in the third grade at Pyle Elementary School, says she is having fun at rehearsals while learning.
"It's very, very fun to participate in the Christmas play," she says. "Christmas is a time of giving — and not receiving."
Elizabeth Whitney, a freshman at Fresno City College and the narrator of the play, says it is important that children's Christmas plays at churches provide opportunities for kids to learn.
"It gives them a chance to be involved and learn about their community," she says. "And when a child says something, it's profound. We have hope, and we have joy."
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (559) 441-6304.