St. Martin de Porres School’s version of Back to the Manger is a big production.
All 270 students, from kindergarten to Grade 5, were involved in the Christmas musical performed on stage at Red Deer College. Back to the Manger tells the story of four children at a church Christmas party who stumble upon a time machine invented by Mr. Olsen, the church custodian.
The time machine suddenly breaks, sending them through decades of Christmas celebrations. In the finale, they arrive at the very first Christmas in Bethlehem and witness Christ’s birth.
The show features flashing lights, extravagant costumes, songs that span five decades, and even a time machine. But more than all that, St. Martin de Porres teachers say it gives students an opportunity to share their talents, bringing the true meaning of Christmas directly into the hearts of their students.
Elena Carritt, a Grade 4 student who played the time-travelling character Gloria, says the experience left her with a renewed appreciation for the meaning of Christmas.
“I think everyone is touched by it,” the nine-year-old said. “One of my favorite lines is when Mr. Olsen says that ‘Whoever told us money can’t buy happiness was trying to keep us from knowing the secret of happiness’. But at the end he sees Jesus’ birth, and he comes back and tell us that the true meaning of Christmas is to love our neighbours and be with God every day.”
It is the school’s second annual Christmas production, and their first time performing Back to the Manger. The play has been performed in churches and religious schools across North America since 2010.
“We wanted something that brings the birth of Jesus to life for them,” said Laura DeGraff, the drama and music teacher at St. Martin de Porres school.
“It’s really important that kids explore the birth of Jesus, delve into it and experience it. The whole theme of this production is having Jesus in your heart, bringing him into your life and what you do because of that. It’s all about giving to others – not just thinking about your faith, but living it out.”
As they travel through time, the children recognize the value of Christmas traditions, charity and how Jesus’s birth is God’s sacrifice to the world. When one of the characters, Jackson, sees Jesus’s birth, he recognizes how service to others can show his gratitude to God.
When the children return to the present day, they discover that the money-obsessed church custodian Mr. Olsen is now the church’s pastor, offering a homily on the importance of charity and sacrifice.
Elena Carritt hopes that message is what parents who saw the production ultimately take away.
“I hope people know the true meaning of Christ – that God sent His only son to this earth to take away our sins and be with us,” she said.
DeGraff chose the play for its unique way of telling the Christmas story. It’s this theme that goes to the heart of the school’s patron St. Martin de Porres, who dedicated much of his life to helping the sick and orphaned.
“The theme of social justice is built into the script, and it’s an important theme for our students,” said DeGraff. “Our patron saint’s life story is also all about social justice and serving the poor.”
The time travelling Christmas pageant features choreographed dances, costumes representing each decade the children travel through and original props like a time machine and jukebox. This variety in musical styles and costumes also inspired DeGraff.
“Every time they go back to a different decade – it’s a 70s disco song, a 90s boy band song. The parents will appreciate that and enjoy seeing it performed,” DeGraff said.
There are 45 students in the main cast, 20 students as backstage crew and two performances by the entire student body. As a fine arts school, St. Martin de Porres staff make an effort to involve all students in the cast and behind the scenes. Directing and choreographing the musical was a challenge.
“They say ‘it’s like herding cats’ and it totally is,” she said with a laugh. “It’s all about organization and getting everyone on the same page. The beauty is we have an amazing staff and parent community. They all come together to make sure the show goes off well.”
As her first time taking a lead role on the stage, Carritt too was challenged by the production.
“I love performing, being on stage with everyone else, but it’s also really tiring,” she said. “But you have to keep a smile on your face and keep pushing through it. With acting, even if you’re super-tired, you have to act like it’s the best day of your life. As Miss DeGraff always says, ‘We have to fake it until we make it.’”
Grade 5 student Denise Estacio plays Norman, a friend of Mr. Olsen and fellow time traveller. She said the biggest challenges were overcoming her shyness and memorizing her lines as well as nine songs.
But Estacio now has many friendships and a deeper understanding of her faith.
“The play’s message is in remembering that true joy comes from serving others, and this is God’s gift,” Estacio said. “I used to be really shy before. I liked getting to practice together and I now have more friends to talk to.”
It’s this kind of production that gives children an incarnational sense of their faith, at a much a more intimate level than a classroom lesson, said DeGraff.
“Any time you do things with the theatre, the kids learn so many skills. They learn how to work hard and persevere with that end goal in mind,” she said.
“Whenever they’re on stage or watching the production, it’s a beautiful opportunity to take what we study in the classroom and have these kids dive so much deeper into that. The birth of Jesus is something that becomes so much more real for them.”
Watching the rehearsals, St. Martin de Porres school principal Dorice de Champlain agreed, saying “through an active, upbeat and engaging production our students can learn and experience the story of the birth of our saviour. It’s important to offer these types of engaging experiences in Catholic schools.”